Parents raise red flags about work of Shawnee Mission Digital Learning Task Force, citing lack of urgency to address problem areas

With dozens of apps available to put on district-issued iPads, it’s been difficult for teachers and parents to manage potential access to inappropriate content.

Some of the parents who implored the Shawnee Mission School District this past fall to review the program that provides an iPad or Macbook to every student are now raising concerns about the work of the Digital Learning Task Force formed earlier this year, saying district leaders are not taking issues like daily screen time and student access to inappropriate content seriously enough.

Gretchen Shanahan, the mother of two Shawnee Mission elementary students, and Erica Frans, the mother of four students in the district, are two of the 30 members the administration selected to participate in the task force. As members of the group of parents who showed up in force at a board of education meeting in November to discuss issues with the 1:1 devices in the classroom and beyond, they were hopeful that the task force would tackle the issues of problematic usage of the devices head on.

Drew Lane (at podium) and Christy Ziegler serve as co-chairs for the task force.

Instead, they say, from the outset, the administrators leading the task force —Assistant Superintendent of Personalized Learning Christy Ziegler and Executive Director of Information and Computer Technology Drew Lane — have been more focused on planning for how to use the devices in future learning than on addressing the problems families are experiencing with the devices today.

“The very same administrators who rushed the initial rollout are now slow walking the process to reach a predetermined outcome designed to protect their own reputations when they should be focused on protecting kids,” Shanahan said.

Shananan and Frans along with Kim Whitman, a district parent who spoke at the board meeting in November but who is not on the task force, say that the administration has not provided the task force with data they have requested on student performance, attendance and classroom behavior since implementation of the 1:1 initiative. Nor have task force members been given access to incident reports related to device usage.

The parents also point out that with so many district employees on the task force, there might be a hesitation from some teachers and building administrators to speak out against current district-wide policy. More than 350 people submitted applications to be part of the task force. The majority of those selected to participate are district employees.

“I know the devices are here to stay and feel with the right guidelines in place they can be very effective learning tools,” Frans said. “We must have non-biased leadership of the DLTF to allow us to get there. The leadership and makeup of this group is creating a road block and preventing the task force from doing the very thing it was created to do — create healthy boundaries surrounding device use.”

‘The process is not over’

Shawnee Mission Chief Communications Officer David Smith pushes back on that characterization, saying that the administration is considering problems with the devices and how to address them. But, he said, the task force is charged with a broader set of objectives than just cleaning up access to inappropriate content and screen time issues. He said the task force may end up making recommendations to the superintendent next month addressing those problem issues.

“The process is not over,” Smith said. “To make this is about where the process will end up, to me that doesn’t seem fair to the process.”

He also said the composition of the task force is appropriate given its overall goal to ensure that the devices are positive additions to the learning environment, particularly in the classroom.

The district did not publicly post notice of the task force meeting dates and times, and the meetings have been closed to the press and the public. As such, it’s not possible to directly corroborate either the parents’ or the district’s descriptions of what’s taken place in the group’s meetings thus far.

The parents group has been collecting examples of issues families have faced with the district-issued device, including this screen shot of the search results a fourth grader got after typing “hot girls” into the web browser on an iPad.

But as the parents’ frustrations have mounted, they’ve continued to collect examples of issues parents have faced with the devices. The News App installed on every iPad is serving up teasers of articles on semi-nude photos of the Kardashians as well as school shootings. Second grade students have earned “stickers” in an app called DoodleBuddy that reference foul language. School-issued devices are equipped with YouTube Kids, where they have been able to access violent or sexual explicit content. Elementary students have been able to make internet searches for terms like “hot girls” on their iPads and been served sexually explicit content.

The parents are now asking the district to commit to the following steps ahead of the coming school year to ensure that teachers and parents are better able to manage what students are exposed to on their school-issued devices.

  • Remove all apps at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
  • Re-evaluate all apps with stricter criteria for appropriate and inappropriate content and honor the existing commitment by SMSD to publish criteria for app approval and reason why each app has been approved effective 2019-2020 school year.
  • Limit the list of “approved apps” to a manageable amount that can be adequately
    and routinely vetted throughout the school year.

“We want our children to be tech literate and we understand these devices aren’t going away,” Shanahan said. “We want the devices used intentionally and to see a balanced approach, based on educational and public health principles, which teaches responsible digital use and also reflects kids’ need for social and physical development.”