E-mail ethics and the sensible teacher

E-mail ethics and the sensible teacher

23 Jun 2011

stolz_thumbSteven Stolz

E-mail:s.stolz@latrobe.edu.au

This article was first published in Teacher, Australia's award-winning national monthly education magazine for educators across all state, Catholic and independent schools. Reproduced with kind permission.

Consider the hypothetical case of John, who holds an educational leadership position at Oceania Secondary School. John as a third party receives an email from a junior member of the teaching staff that is not intended for him.

While its contents are clearly not intended for a third party due to the private and privileged information found within it, its specific details are difficult to ignore for two reasons: first, because they suggest that a senior member of the teaching staff is consistently underperforming in their role to the point that, if shown to be true, suggest there is potentially a case for misconduct and grounds for dismissal and secondly, it's the first time this has been brought to John's attention.

What should John do? Is John entitled to act on the private and privileged information?

Is he entitled to consider the private and privileged information in the email to constitute evidence, or not? Should he seek out the author of the email to verify or elaborate on their claims? Should he just ignore the email altogether as if he never received it?

Such a case is not as straight forward as it may appear on the face of it. For instance, John will need to weigh the privacy of the author of the email, with whom of course he has a professional relationship, against his obligation to act in the best interests of the school at all times.

While the case here is hypothetical, it reflects in general terms a problem identified by a variety of credible sources that, in relation to information and communication technology (ICT), some schools now overtly or even covertly monitor email correspondence, social networking sites and internet usage habits, as well as telephone conversations. Staff in some schools report that their internet access has been suspended when certain data limits have been reached, certain social networking sites have been blocked and they have been asked to pay for private phone calls.

Forget reality TV shows like Big Brother where participants willingly and knowingly live beneath the gaze of cameras. The capacity for covert monitoring of the kind I've described is no far step from George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a pervasive and omnipresent government uses surveillance, and other means, to subordinate individuals to the state.

In Oceania, the posters of the Party bear the caption 'BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,' while ubiquitous telescreens monitor the private and public lives of the population. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell is interested in censorship as well as surveillance, but it's surveillance that most interests me here because the inhabitants of Oceania have no real privacy and as a result act with absolute obedience, with very few exceptions, which, as Orwell shows, the state ably stamps out.

Whether he likes it or not, John has found himself in possession of what is in effect surveillance. The most obvious response for someone in such a position is an intervention based on an appeal to rules.

Since most schools have an ICT policy pertaining to appropriate usage, John could argue that the author of the email was using the school's ICT infrastructure in an inappropriate capacity and therefore be challenged accordingly about its content. In terms of determining exactly which rule the author broke according to ICT usage in his correspondence may, however, be difficult, depending on the precision with which the ICT policy on appropriate usage has been framed.

It may be that the author of the email could be accused of failing to follow procedural rules to do with the reporting of misconduct to a higher authority. The problem here is that John must determine whether the claims made against the senior staff member were in fact the reporting, even the misguided or inadvertent reporting, of misconduct or merely the venting of frustrations which, in context, do not constitute the reporting of misconduct.

Such considerations address whether John has the right to further investigate the email, and consequently the senior member of staff, on the grounds that its author has breached some rule or other.

An appeal to rules, of course, applies equally to John, and whether he has the right to further i us est igate the email also depends on the way he obtained the email.

It's possible that John may' have received the email in error, but the question for John here is whether to divulge the information in the email to other parties would be a breach of privacy. The problem here is that most ICT codes of conduct M schools do not provide a clear definition of privacy.

If, however, John has authorised a proxy to monitor the ICT usage of his staff members on his behalf this may be a serious breach of privacy, particularly if staff have not been made aware of this. Supposing that it hiss been communicated to all staff members that their ICT usage is being monitored, there's still a problem, which again is that most ICT codes of conduct do not provide a clear definition of privacy, especially in terms of what constitutes a loss or violation of privacy. Appropriate ICT usage policies define what is considered to be private and not to be invaded, and also identity those interests that legitimately may be balanced against privacy interests.

This has to do with the kind and extent of access to email correspondence, social networking sites, internet usage habits, telephone records and the like, but more importantly to do with who has access and through what means.

The key question is whether John's responsibility as an educational leader obliges him to act in the best interests of the school and whether that obligation overrides any concerns pertaining to privacy. To say that it does would require that the following live conditions are satisfied. These are as follows: the interests of the school are clearly at stake there must be a reasonable chance of success no other alternative options are available the negative effects of intervention will be minimal, and all affected parties will be treated impartially.

In this case there's no doubt that John can quite easily justify an intervention based on the first two conditions because the alleged underperformance of a crucial staff member clearly affects the interests of the school and there is a reasonable chance that intervention would resolve the issue to the ultimate benefit of the school.

It can be the case that some of these conditions are overlooked in ethical deliberations and, as a result, conclusions are reached that may not otherwise have been reached if they had been observed. Decisions are often arrived at, for instance, without serious consideration of alternative options, such as an initial informal and non-confrontational conversation as a means to broach the issue with the parties in question.

Ultimately, when ethical issues arise, the onus is on the agent to show that their decision is justifiable according to normative frameworks which ask, at a bare minimum, this question: What would a reasonable person do if they were in a similar situation?

If John can answer with confidence that most people would discount the privacy of the junior staff member, no other alternative options being available, M favour of the best interests of the school, then he may lie justified in taking action. If not, the option to ignore the email may be justified in this case.

What would you do?

Steven Stolz is a Lecturer, Physical Education and Health

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