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Pasco School Board wrestles with cameras on campus

The prevalence of smartphones has put tiny cameras in nearly every corner of everyday life — including the classrooms.

It's easier than ever to snap photos or take videos, sometimes without the subjects even knowing it, and post the images online for the whole world to see. Teachers making inappropriate comments, students hitting teachers and others have become YouTube stars, however unwillingly, because of such decisions.

In Pasco County, school district officials have received complaints from time to time of "improper" images from school appearing on Facebook and other websites. For the past six months, district staffers have attempted to write rules that would govern the taking and sharing of photos in schools. But the efforts worry School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso, who said the district could face serious constitutional questions about First Amendment rights if it tries to govern the content of students' social media sites.

And from a practical standpoint, how would the district even enforce such restrictions?

The latest draft of the proposed policy would have barred students from taking or sharing photos and videos at school or a school-related event without "explicit consent."

At a workshop on Tuesday, board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong called the proposal unreasonable and near impossible to monitor. Alfonso said the concept of "consent" needed more clarity — can a 10-year-old consent to a photo? — and more legal vetting.

"The law of unintended consequences is going to rear its head if we adopt this language," board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said, urging the staff to take the language back for another revision before it comes up for board approval.

The issue is particularly problematic for Pasco schools because of the district's stated desire to have students use their own personal electronic devices for classroom lessons, as a complement to district-owned technology. Many principals also allow students to have their devices on for texting, games and other operations during lunch, passing periods and free periods.

Hillsborough and Pinellas schools, by contrast, employ an "off and out of sight" rule for electronics. Students taking photos without permission to even have their phones on would be in trouble just for that.

"You don't tell everyone no," Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino said of her district's philosophy, which also has opened sites such as YouTube for school use. "You tell them what the consequences are if they abuse it."

That's the path that board members said they hoped to travel in dealing with students taking photos and videos.

"It's not the act of taking the picture," Armstrong said. "It's what they do with it."

Student services director Lizette Alexander said the policy and related proposals within the student code of conduct were aimed at promoting proper use. Added language also would make clear that no photos or videos would be allowed in places such as bathrooms and locker rooms, "where privacy or confidentiality may be compromised."

She and instructional media director Wendy Spriggs said they are writing a "responsible use" agreement for students to sign. It's in early draft stages, Spriggs said.

"It is important that they learn how to do this appropriately," she said. "Everyone is struggling with this new world we are living in."

Alfonso urged the staff to bring all the language — policy, code of conduct, and use agreement — to his office for review before it goes to the board. He said the language must be clear and coordinated if it stands a chance of being enforceable.

"This will be difficult to police, difficult to enforce," he said away from the meeting. "But I'm not saying it's not doable."

The board removed the language from Tuesday's agenda. Staffers said they would rewrite the proposals before returning to the board. In the meantime, the district will retain more general language that essentially allows students to use personal electronic devices at school if they have permission from school officials.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

Pasco School Board wrestles with cameras on campus 04/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 11:36pm]

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