On proportionality and privacy

I was thinking about using some click-baity title with “Google” and “you can’t just click it” in it but this is far too serious an issue for that.

So, a teacher has been barred from teaching for life. These were the allegations against them:

  1. Accessed pornography websites on one or more occasions whilst connected to a school network, in particular:
    • Gayteenvideo.net;
    • Gayboystube.com;
  1. Made searches for pornography and/or other inappropriate material on one or more occasions whilst connected to a school network, in particular he used the following or similar keywords:
  • ‘skipped school to fuck’;
  • ‘gayboystube’;
  • ‘verygayboys’;
  • ‘twink sex’;
  • ‘hot tube videos with nude teen boys’;
  • ‘gayteen videos’;
  • ‘fitlads dating’;
  • ‘ladsforlads’.

These allegations were admitted in a joint statement of facts. On the grounds that such actions amounted to unacceptable professional conduct and/or conduct that may bring the profession into disrepute prohibition was considered both proportionate and appropriate. This was upheld by the Secretary of State. No reapplication possible. Result? Lifetime ban from teaching.

There are two issues here and I want to separate them. The first is the issue of proportionality – was a lifetime ban appropriate in the circumstances? The second is the issue of privacy and circumstances in which the evidence came into the hands of the school and the NCTL. Both are important, though I suspect the latter will be a bit of a shock to most who work in schools.

Firstly, personal cards on the table.

With regards to the first issue I am what you might describe as a hawk when it comes to child protection. As an adoptive parent I have heard far too many tales of what happens when it fails. And it usually fails because people don’t think that the person working next to them could be a risk to children. So the processes, policies and their implementation I take seriously. As I do what happens when those fail. In this I would suggest I’m not unlike most people who work in schools.

With regards to the second issue you could probably also describe me as a privacy hawk. Technology has severely inhibited our ability to protect our privacy and more importantly has eroded to idea of informed consent to disclosure. Much more of our personal information is available to more people than we would probably like to think. My belief is that this has already gone too far.

As you can imagine, these views often conflict with each other. But that’s ok, I’m homo sapiens, I was designed to deal with such conflicts.

Anyhow, back to the specifics of this case.

Firstly, I’d suggest that you read the whole report. It’s here. It’s only 15 pages. I’m going to pick out a few pieces from it, but not the whole, so I’m bound to pick those bits that support my arguments. I’d also point out on the grounds of fairness to those making the decision that they would have had access to a lot more information than is presented in the report.

On the issue of proportionality.

On the face of it the search terms are fairly damning. A teacher searching for sexual images of teens on porn websites. As soon as you write that sentence you know you are on thin ice in trying to in any way excuse it. But my concern here is proportionality, not absolutism.

As far as I can make out from the report no crime was committed. There is reference to a police report but not to any prosecution. This section is relevant:

The panel also notes that the police report dated 11 September 2014 states that one of the websites <<the teacher>> admits to viewing contains a disclaimer that all persons featured were over the age of 18 (p.405) but that the site allowed users to upload their own images and so it was difficult (if not impossible) to guarantee the age of the people in the images (p.405). Although <<the teacher>> submitted in oral evidence that he had no intention of viewing images of under 18’s and nor did he believe he had, the panel considers that <<the teacher>> unreasonably ran the risk of doing so and therefore his conduct would be viewed negatively by the public particularly in light of the unique role that teachers can hold, potentially damaging the public perception of the profession.

There is no suggestion that any illegal imagery had been found on any device in the possession of the teacher. Nor the remotest suggestion that these web activities crossed any boundary into the real world.

It is when I contrast this with other cases I have seen, where there has been real world misconduct by a teacher with children, which have not led to lifetime bans that I question the proportionality of this decision.

On the issue of privacy

This, I feel, is the more important issue.

How did these web searches come to light? Back to the report:-

On 27 January 2014, a concern was raised by a member of staff of the School about images found on School equipment belonging to year 6 pupils. The School had concerns about its internet filter settings which allowed the images to be obtained and undertook an internal investigation with the assistance of its IT provider. The School was subsequently made aware that, unrelated to the original concern raised, two web addresses “Gayteenvideos” and “Gayboytubes” had been accessed on School equipment repeatedly between November 2010 and January 2014. The School’s IT provider advised that the websites had been accessed remotely through the School’s network. According to the times that the websites were accessed, and the nature of other non-contentious searches undertaken around the same time, the School suspected that it was <<the teacher>> who was accessing these websites on the School’s network.

On 29 January 2014, the School contacted the CEOP who reviewed the websites and found that they contained images of young looking males. <<the teacher’s>> School’s laptop was then searched but no inappropriate material was found. On 31 January 2014, the School held a strategy meeting with the LADO. The police were subsequently advised of the situation and they undertook an investigation.

During February 2014, police seized electronic equipment (including laptops and mobiles) from <<the teacher’s>> apartment and on 24 February 2014, he was suspended from his position at the School. The police investigation concluded on 11 September

2014 and a further LADO Strategy Meeting took place on 12 September 2014. <<the teacher>> was informed by letter of the allegations being investigated by the School on 26 September 2014 and he was invited to attend an interview as part of that investigation.

The School’s internal investigation took place between 6 October 2014 and 28 November 2014, with <<the teacher’s>> interview taking place on 10 October 2014. A disciplinary hearing took place on 4 March 2015 and <<the teacher>> was dismissed for misconduct on 30 April 2015.

Things to note.

  • This investigation was peripheral to the initial discovery of images on the school network. There is no suggestion they got there via this teacher.
  • None of the offences took place on school property
  • None of the offences took place on school time.
  • None of the offences took place using school equipment.

And here is the key issue. Continually throughout the report the phase “using the School’s network” or similar is used. Initially you might understand this to mean whilst connected to a VPN or other such network. This does not appear to be the case.

The report is fairly opaque on this issue, at one point stating:-

…<<the teacher>> had accessed several websites of a sexual nature featuring young men via the School’s gmail web address.

I know a fair amount about this stuff but I don’t understand what that sentence means.

From close reading of the report it would seem that the search history was available because to the teacher was still logged into their school email account, a Google account. Consequently the search history was captured by the school domain and was available in its logs*. This is a very wide definition of “using the school network” and it’s not one I’m sure can be sustained.

Much of the commentary in the report relies on this idea that this took place on the school network would inform the public view of this as a serious offence.

So I’m not sure that aspect of this holds up well.

What are the consequences of this for other teachers? Do they all know that if you are logged into your school Google Suite email account then the school is capturing your search history? Do schools all know this?

There are very good reasons why a school based system needs to log these things. I’ve done this. I’ve been in charge of it. I logged everything I could. And the things the system didn’t automatically capture we wrote command scripts to capture. I have no problem with capturing data on a network when people know that data is being captured. It is a child protection issue. I’m a hawk, remember? That comes first.

On the school network. On school devices.

Does a school (or any other employer) have the right to capture data an employee generates in their own home, on their own time, on their own devices. Over their own broadband. Just because they happened to do a bit of work just before that and forgot to log off their email account? And please don’t even start with the “if you aren’t doing anything wrong you have nothing to hide” argument. There are plenty of things you do that aren’t “wrong” that you wouldn’t want your employer to know about, even if they are a school.

And the other side of this is also important. Who can access this information? What policies does a school have in this regard? There are many questions to answer here.

Unless you are sure you know the answers to those questions I would suggest that if you do any web search, the knowledge of which would enable someone to find out something about yourself you would rather keep to yourself then don’t do it on a machine that has ever been connected to your school email account.

I said at the beginning that these were two separate issues. But they are linked. This teacher was doing something personal (which may arguably have been inappropriate for a teacher to do), in personal time, on personal equipment, at home. This was found out because they were not careful enough to log out of an email account. The lack of privacy has wrecked their career. Led to a police investigation. There is no evidence they were a bad teacher. Or a person who would be dangerous to young people. No evidence has been presented to this effect.

I know no more than the contents of the NCTL report, but based on that I’m not sure that this is fair.

 

 

*There is an alternative possibility which is that the computer was still accessing the internet through a school proxy, though that is unlikely given that it was a personal device that was being used. Either way, the suggestion that it is using the school network is still a stretch. If you think there is another explanation, please do let me know.

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