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Parents Go Legal on Austin Schools over Student iPads

"We Need to Know" Graphic by EISD Parents for Responsible Use of Technology in School Facebook Group

The mother of a 6-year-old who accessed photos of topless women on his school-issued iPad believes his Austin,Texas school system has not done enough to protect students, so she and other parents are taking legal action.

At a board meeting of the Eanes Independent School District, Meaghan Edwards used the Texas public information act to request terms of service for every website, app, and software product used by district students during the last and next school years.

“If you’re following the rules, these questions will be easy to answer,” Edwards said at the June 16 meeting. Because it was an open forum, board members did not respond with comments.   

So That Parents May Understand

Two separate public information requests were submitted. The more detailed posed dozens of questions Edwards and others hope will shed light on what’s happened in the seven years since the district began supplying iPads to every student, from Kindergarten through high school.

“It is important that the District provide parents the terms of service…so that the parents may give their consent, if required, and so that parents may understand whether the use of the service by their child under age 13 is a violation of the terms,” the request stated.

YouTube terms of service, for instance, state that children under age 13 may not use the service without parental consent.

Some parents who spoke are concerned the district does not have the data to prove that iPads are the most effective platform for learning, compared with traditional teaching methods. Others worry that using the device can hurt children’s physical and mental health, detracting from their overall durability.

“These parents, and every parent, has a right to know what efforts you’ve made to determine the safety and efficacy of the technologies that you’ve mandated in the classroom, especially as they affect our youngest children,” Austin resident, parent, and attorney Julie Liddell remarked at the meeting.

An Unhealthy Relationship with Technology

Just weeks after receiving a petition from nearly 400 parents prior to the end of this school year expressing interest in the option of iPad-free classrooms, the district acted quickly by improving web filters and removing access to some apps and websites. But many parents remain unsatisfied, believing the devices themselves are the crux of the issue.

“You are forcing your students into an unhealthy relationship with technology that no filter can mitigate, because the root problem is not the content. The problem is addictive design,” parent and attorney Andy Liddell, Julie Liddell’s husband, told board members. “Against parents’ wishes, the district is forcing kids into an addiction cycle that they cannot resist because their brains aren’t developed enough to resist.”

A Scalable Legal Strategy

This is likely the first time parents have used freedom of information laws to prompt public school action on the issue of technology in the classroom.

Parents elsewhere in the country could adopt the same strategy because laws in every state give ordinary citizens the power to request documents and records from public bodies, including public schools.

Brooke Shannon, another Austin resident and founder of the child advocacy group Wait Until 8th, believes digital devices too often crowd out the face-to-face interaction needed between students and teachers. She called for “a proactive and comprehensive approach to improve how and when our children use technology.” As she stated in conclusion, “Don’t insert tech when a real world experience would do.”

Just Say No

In her remarks, Julie Liddell urged parents not to wait for an official response: “Until the administration can show their work, withhold your consent. Federal privacy laws require that you consent to every device, app, and website that’s available to your kids under 13. If the administration won’t suspend the program until they understand it and can ensure its safety, just say no.”

Update as of August 28, 2019:

In response to the parents’ Freedom of Information Act requests described above, the Eanes Independent School District responded by quoting a charge of close to $70,000 to access basic information about the apps and websites approved for use and data collected on students. Terming the second parent request “vague,” the school district did not quote a fee for document preparation nor did it provide the requested information.

The parents then filed a series of complaints with the Texas Attorney General, who ordered the District to provide the information that was requested or to request an opinion from the Attorney General’s office about its requirement to respond.

In a separate move, the Eanes Independent School District had this response to a parent request for students to be able to opt out of the iPad program:

“We have taken significant measures to address the need for more attention to students’ thoughtful use of technology in learning while also preserving the continuity of instruction. Therefore, with respect to both the curricular and instructional capacities of our teachers, the parents’ flexibility to request an “opt out” of classroom technology or related services for their student is not feasible at this time.”

Check back for updates to this story.

About the author: Jenifer Joy Madden is a health journalist, digital media professor, parent educator, and parent of three. Find her work on news outlets including ABC News, The Washington Post, her books, How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design and The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital World and in her online parent education classroom, Durable U

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