Here to Serve

Alex Rutter, a 15-year old boy who stutters and has classified learning and behavior disabilities, is accused of accessing a porn site in the computer lab. Questions arise related to appropriate punishment, ineffective filters in school computers, and lack of appropriate supervision in the computer lab.

Chris Eckert, the technology coordinator at Blair Middle School, works with Alex Rutter one morning in the school’s Technology Learning Center (TLC).

Over the sound of her footsteps in the empty school corridor, Chris Eckert heard the computers in the TLC booting up. The Windows start-up sounds chimed in succession as she counted—one, two, three, four all the way up to 13—and thought to herself, “Today I have GOT to call the district technician and get number 14 fixed. And I need to remind him to figure out what is wrong with the Internet filter on our web server. I phoned that problem in weeks ago. He must have forgotten about it.”

The week had been hectic, with both the first football game of the season and student council elections. Since the first week of school, there were always students in the Technology Learning Center during the school day, making it virtually impossible to finish anything, like hardware repairs, ordering new software, or planning for instruction. It had even been difficult to squeeze in a trip to the restroom!

As she stepped into the lab, Chris was greeted by a tall, heavy-set 15 year-old with a sheepish grin. “Mm..m…morning Mrs. Eckert,” he stuttered. “That’s still not working? It has h..h..h..had that sign on it n…n..nearly three weeks. So..o..omebody’s drawn peace symbols all over it.”

“It IS still broken Alex,” Chris replied guiltily. “Things have been a little crazy around here. But you know that. I don’t know what I would do without your help. I’m so glad you’re here to help me get things started each day.”


This statement made Alex Rutter, unaccustomed to praise as he was, a bit uncomfortable. Mr. Dally, the assistant principal, had given Alex permission to enter the school building immediately after his grandmother dropped him off each morning. This routine was established the third day of school after he had split another student’s lip in the school courtyard and the intervention team had sought prevention of any similar altercations. They had revised his IEP to take his behavior disorder into consideration.

Alex’s IEP

Alex was taller than most boys in his class and known to classmates as “Rutter the Stutter.” He was an easy target for the verbal and physical jabs aimed at special education students included in mainstream education programs. Each day Alex booted up the computers, logged them onto the network, and spruced things up in the busy technology lab. For two weeks he had needed direct supervision, but now Alex could complete these tasks by himself. He only needed help with the writing assignment the language arts teacher gave him to work on each day after the lab was ready to go.

Chris in the tech lab

Chris was glad for the opportunity to develop a special relationship with her “project,” as William Dally often referred to Alex. Ever since she had left the self-contained, fourth grade classroom where she had taught for five years to accept the job as a building technology coordinator, Chris had really missed connecting with the kids. Although she occasionally thought how nice it would be to have an extra half-hour before school to check the equipment around the building and grab a cup of coffee, she was glad to be able to work with Alex. Chris had caught him smiling more than once as he shined the monitors and dusted the keyboards in the lab. Sometimes, his stutter was almost inaudible.

Today, Alex’s writing assignment was to make a list of activities he did when he arrived home from school each day. The language arts teacher had noticed that complete sentences were hard for Alex to write—especially by hand. Frustration with this task often manifested itself in a frightening display of loud stuttering, cursing, and physical aggression. Lists, especially those he could type on a computer, seemed to be less problematic for Alex. As he placed his fingers on the keyboard this morning, however, a dark look passed over his face.

See a list of Alex’s daily activities below:

Chris was seated beside Alex and looking over the lunch menu, but she noticed the flash of anger in Alex’s eyes. She was about to ask what he was thinking when the sound of the morning bell broke the moment and sent Alex scuffling to get his books. As he headed into the corridor, Chris’s encouraging words fell short of his ears. “Thanks Alex! Make it a good one!”

School hallway

Moments later, Chris heard the bustle of footsteps in the hall stop. Loud yelling in a voice she recognized all too well sounded from one of the eighth-grade homerooms. Just then the assistant principal emerged from the classroom with a very upset Alex. The two headed toward the office amidst a sea of students rushing to first period. Chris looked at the students filing into her room with dismay, wishing she had time to check on Alex. She would have to wait until lunch to discover what had happened.

Chris gives three girls permission to work on an assignment in the technology lab during lunch period.

Heading out the door to supervise the first convening of the new student council, Chris passed three seventh-grade girls on their way into the lab.

“Where are you three ladies headed?” Chris asked. It was unusual to see three girls headed to the technology lab during free time.

The tallest of the three said, “Mrs. Suk told us we could finish working on our assignment in the technology lab. She gave us a lot of work to do, and we didn’t get it finished before the end of class.”

This didn’t quite seem right. Chris knew these girls, and they weren’t the type to be slow workers. In fact, she knew that two of the three had tested as “gifted” and usually finished their work in less time than their classmates. Mrs. Suk, one of the algebra teachers, must have given the trio extra work to keep them busy until their classmates had finished their regular assignments. Though she resented the senior teacher’s expectation that she supervise the girls during lunch, Chris was sure the girls would be fine in the lab without her. They were girls, and gifted, after all.

Chris responded, “Well ladies, I don’t usually allow students to use the technology lab without me, but I’m glad to see some girls down here for a change. You are welcome to sit at the work table until I get back, and then I’ll help you on the computers. But be sure to keep your food away from the machines!”

Smiling sweetly as they bounced into the room, the three chimed, “Thanks, Mrs. Eckert!”

Mrs. Donovan and her students find a questionable website during language arts class.

Although the air conditioner had been grinding away all morning, the technology lab was still sticky after lunch. Jean Donovan stood in the midst of what looked like chaos. Her 32 eighth-grade students were crowded around the lab’s thirteen computers. Students were supposed to be using the Web to find sites about the American Revolution to tie into their study of Collier’s book My Brother Sam is Dead. Those on computers without access to the school’s network were to work on a vocabulary quiz program. Instead, most were chattering with each other.

As Jean looked around the crowded room, she heard one student exclaim, “Wow! I’ve got 234,679 websites that match my search on the American Revolution!”

At the end of the room near the door, Jean noticed two girls working on the vocabulary quiz program together. “Ladies, you’re supposed to be working on that program individually. Take turns,” she admonished.

One of the girls looked up in surprise, “Isn’t this what we are supposed to be doing? Mrs. Eckert always tells us that when we are in the computer lab, collaborating isn’t cheating.”

Jean was taken aback by this comment and decided she had better make sure the students understood HER rules about working with the computers.

See Jean’s lesson plan below:

Jean Donovan

“Class…class…” she started, but no one heard her over the chatter and clicking of keyboards. Not wanting to wait any longer to get her students’ attention she yelled, “STOP NOW!” The room fell silent except for snickering coming from one corner of the room.

Jean Donovan’s “evil eye” focused on four adolescent males, but was unable (for once) to silence the outburst. In four quick steps she was behind the boys and in front of a porn site.

She hit the power switch and felt the blood rushing to her face, blushed. “What do you think you are doing? What does THAT have to do with the novel?”

The students realized they were “busted.” One stuttered, “Bbbbut we didn’t ddddo it. We just hit the bbbbback button. We wanted to retrace our steps like Mrs. Eckert taught us last week, and wwwwwe ssssaw tttthis.”

The hushed class heard the recognizable stutter. Alex Rutter was going to “get it” again. One of the boys added, “Mrs. Donovan, Alex is telling the truth. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

In an angry voice, Jean Donovan said, “We will deal with this in my classroom. Class, line up . . . NOW!” She thought in frustration, “Alex is just plain trouble. Kids like him ruin things for the entire class.”

When the decision was made to set up the lab, Jean had been adamantly opposed to it. Her resistance lessened, however, after the assistant superintendent promised to provide technology training for Jean and her colleagues. But an entire summer had passed, and he had not delivered; he said funding was the problem. As Jean and her students headed back to her classroom, she was fuming. The students might not have learned anything this class period, but she certainly had.

Despite all of her knowledge, Jean did not know how to prevent students from accessing inappropriate materials on web servers. What she did know was that she would not face a problem like this again, because she was not coming back to the lab, no matter what the assistant superintendent said.

Chris Eckert and her husband Paul discuss Alex on the way home from school.

Chris talks to the assistant principal, William Dally.

The next day, Chris sat waiting in the chair opposite the assistant principal’s large desk and reflected on the events that brought her there. Last night, she received an irate phone call from Jean Donovan who had given her an earful and a recap of her sixth period language arts class.

Despite what seemed like damning evidence, Chris could not believe Alex was responsible for accessing the porn site Jean discussed. Alex could be violent, belligerent, and sometimes lethargic, but he was not sneaky or devious. He certainly had the computer skills to find it, but unless he had been goaded on by the other boys, she was sure that he wouldn’t even think of doing something like that. Chris felt sick at the thought that her husband might be right about Alex. Maybe mainstreaming was too much for kids like Alex.

Chris wondered if it was possible for students in another class to access that page. Normally students wouldn’t have been able to type in the key phrases that would bring up such a site, but it would have been easy with the school’s web filtering software down. She knew that if the web browser wasn’t closed before Jean’s class used the lab, then the page could have been accessed by someone else. Feeling anxious about meeting with the assistant principal, Chris tried to remember the lab schedule from the day before.

Dally stormed into his office and interrupted her thoughts. Chris had been dreading this meeting since his secretary called to set it up. The secretary said that Dally wanted to see her first thing today. As he sat down, Chris could understand why this man was such an effective disciplinarian. His gruff manner and enormous size were enough to frighten even her. She listened anxiously as he said, “Chris, we’ve got some serious issues to discuss. Do you know what’s going on?”

Chris took a deep breath and hoped Dally didn’t hear her voice quaver, ” I wasn’t here when things went wrong last period because I took a half-day of personal leave. Jean filled me in on what happened by phone last night. But I have a really hard time believing the boys were responsible.”

Dally looked at her quizzically and said, “From what Jean told me, there isn’t much ambiguity here. The parents of some of the girls in that class have already left messages wondering why students were allowed to access obscene sites. Apparently word of this incident has already gotten around to half of the school community.”

Chris almost didn’t hear the rest of what Dally had to say as an inner voice asserted rather loudly, “The GIRLS! Weren’t they in the lab at lunchtime? Was it possible they had been the culprits?”

But Dally continued, “Unless you can prove those boys are not guilty, I will have to punish them. That probably means suspension for Alex. You may have heard I had already warned him. I was going to suspend his computer privileges if he was violent again, but I might have to do more than that if he’s guilty of this. I have not talked to Tavaris’s parents yet, but I did manage to speak with Michael’s mother. She admitted that he’s capable of getting into trouble on the web. I’m inclined to believe Jean unless you can prove her wrong.”

Chris stiffened visibly. Her mind was racing. What was that she had heard about the cache file on these computers? Could that tell them who accessed the questionable site?