Editor’s note: This letter was submitted to the Transcript by a group of parents who wish to remain anonymous. After confirming their identity, the Transcript granted their request for anonymity.

An open letter to Dr. Migliorino and the NPS administration from a group of Norman parents:

Parents’ concerns about the technology initiative were never answered last year. Besides an online Q&A page, there was virtually no school-to-home communication. Although we understand the potential, there is now a whisper around Norman, a conversation held between parents that the emperor has no clothes.

We ask NPS leadership to read this letter carefully, not in order to defend the MacBooks, but to understand the negative impact the technology initiative has brought many Norman families as it has been implemented. NPS rendered parents powerless from the get-go. We do not have access to our children’s passwords, which they can change at any time. There is no “parent portal” for our children’s device activity or search history. NPS supposedly has this information, but parents cannot access it. Many of us monitor our kids’ other technology use (cell phone, tablet, etc.), but we are completely in the dark about their computer use, even though they are connected to WiFi seven hours a day.

This is profoundly problematic, especially since we as parents are legally responsible for that activity. Indeed, by signing the NPS technology agreement, parents promise to “indemnify and hold the school, the District, and all of their administrators … harmless from any losses, costs, claims or damages resulting from the student’s access.” (NPS Policy Guide pg. 20). Parents are held responsible for something that NPS denies them the power to even monitor.

How do we teach our kids good digital citizenship, boundaries, and accountability if we cannot access their online activity? NPS is not their parent. We are! Yet, we cannot have needed discussions about their individual online choices. How do we prevent our kids from being cyber bullies, reading or posting inappropriate content, or ensure that they don’t wile away their time in class with distractions, when we have zero access? 

Filters designed to protect our kids are ineffective, at best. Some of us raised the alarm because we know that students were able to bypass NPS filters to access forbidden content, including pornography, on stationary computers and ChromeBooks even in elementary school, as recently as last year.  Those of us who have pressed our children for their passwords to conduct spot-checks have been alarmed at finding disallowed games, unknown apps, obscene music videos, and even pornography in the history, none of which has been caught or disciplined by the schools, half of which was likely wiped from the history before we ever saw it. Our children are not safe online at school. Despite Gaggle and NPS filters, our students are creating new Apple IDs and secret Google accounts, circumventing all efforts to keep them safe. They are extremely successful at it, and most do it with no repercussions. Should students lack the finer skills in computer hacking, sites like YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (to mention a few) are not blocked by NPS.  Most of these allow access to pornography and other inappropriate material. Existing filters will never catch that activity as forbidden. In fact, many required classes and school organizations have social media accounts that students are encouraged to follow. To put a device so poorly filtered and abysmally monitored into the hands of students in the name of education and to cut parents off from monitoring access is at best morally wrong and possibly even criminal.

The NPS task-force is insufficient and the discipline plan non-existent. 8,000 students, 7 hours a day for 180 school days are thus plugged into their devices. Although a server somewhere at NPS tracks this data, the sheer amount of offenses detected combined with NPS’ lack of man-power ensures that only a fraction will ever be held accountable.

Our students, however, are daily surrounded by hundreds of expert little hackers, each one with a developing frontal cortex, many rebellious and hell-bent on using this technology to its maximum potential (hint: not educational pursuits). Those with no clue how to circumvent monitoring are quickly learning from the real experts – their peers. 

While there are two pages of technology rules in the NPS Policy Guide, only one sentence addresses discipline: “A student who violates the District’s internet policy will be subject to disciplinary action.” What is this action? No one knows. What students do know, however, is that they have successfully gotten away with infractions without any consequences for most of the school year. Filters are obsolete on other WiFi networks. Once kids step off campus, what little protection was afforded them on the NPS network is gone, unless parents filter and monitor at home. At Starbucks and McDonalds all bets are off, leaving the devices wide open to illegal activity. While NPS is misty-eyed about potential flipped-learning lessons, many students view their MacBook as their best, most private source of entertainment. Students are more distracted in the classroom than before. The theoretical advantages that the MacBooks offer do not pan out in practice. Students this year tune out teacher instructions and due-dates because of incessant screen-distraction, resulting in missing assignments and falling grades. Teachers have received virtually no training on how to incorporate MacBooks in the classroom setting. Keeping thirty cyber-obsessed kids focused on the task at hand is an impossible feat. From the scientific community and behavioral specialists there is an escalating outcry of warning against excessive screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends school-age children receive no more than one to two hours of screen-time per day. Kids in Norman far exceed that number and it’s mandated by NPS! Lower socioeconomic families are more vulnerable to the negative impact of the NPS MacBooks. The bond was pushed on the premise of equality – that poor students do not have access to technology. The truth is, what poor kids have most access to is screens. And the parents least likely to limit abuse or overuse of the MacBooks are disadvantaged parents. Single mothers working multiple jobs already feel guilty for relying too much on screens.

As any Kindergarten teacher will tell you – economically disadvantaged kids are the ones who enter school with only swiping-skills. With the advent of the MacBook and no mandate for parents to supervise their children, poor kids are more likely to spend too much time on them. And it’s all seemingly endorsed by NPS! Also, most homework assignments that require the MacBook also require internet access. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of households in Norman without internet. For these disconnected households the MacBook then becomes useless except for playing pre-downloaded games.

Students cannot be expected to fully handle the responsibility of such a powerful device. Kids will certainly need to know how to handle technology eventually. But their brains are not developed enough yet to maintain the kind of focus required and develop the reading, writing and math skills they need. NPS is expecting students to possess self-control and to inhibit impulses at least to such a degree that it does not impair their learning. Few responsible students can handle it; far too many cannot. Homework takes twice as long when checking the Spotify list or group chat every few minutes. Students who already struggle with attention or motivation have been given a hurdle, not a tool.

For all these reasons, and others not mentioned, we ask NPS to make serious changes for next school year. Consider the following: 

1. Mandatory parent education (before a device can be issued).

2. The ability for parents to monitor and limit children’s online access, and a charge from NPS for parents to do so.

3. Ideally, pulling the Macbooks entirely from middle schoolers whose hormones, developing brains and penchant for drama simply aren’t conducive to the level of self-control required for this responsibility.

4. The option for parents to say “No” to a MacBook, without having to withdraw their student from school.

5. Instill in the students that parents are ultimately in charge of the devices and that they do not belong to the students.

6. A clear plan for other technology, such as an enforceable no-phone policy in class, at the very least. Please let us be an active partner. We love and support Norman Public Schools and want to be a part of the solution.

Sincerely,

Concerned NPS parents

Caleb Slinkard was hired as the editor of the Norman Transcript in August of 2015. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce and previously was in charge of several newspapers in northeast Texas.

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