Morro Bay teen’s app gets zapped by high school officials

Student wants to profit from school-info app he created, but district isn’t buying it

acornejo@thetribunenews.comApril 26, 2012 

Morro Bay High School senior Johnny Hammerlund is a budding entrepreneur who used a talent for technology to create his first paid app for smartphones.

The app, intended for other high school students, is simple in concept. It streamlines public information from the high school’s website — such as bell schedules and the cafeteria lunch menu for the day — into an simple format that students can access using their phones or tablet computers wherever they are.

Despite Hammerlund’s good intentions, however, his innovation has created controversy in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District. The app is becoming a focal point in deciding how district technology is handled as students become increasingly tech savvy.

Specifically, what happens when a student’s grasp of technology outpaces policies in place to protect district resources?

“It is an interesting scenario of how student initiatives can race ahead of traditional legal doctrines,” said Mark Williams of Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost, a law firm based in Los Angeles that specializes in education law, with six offices throughout the state.

Williams said the controversy foreshadows the kind of issues school districts throughout the state will face in coming years.

School administrators say Hammerlund’s access to the district computer server, which he used to retrieve information for the app, created a potential threat to confidential information stored there.

Hammerlund was able to access the district server through his role as the webmaster at the high school — a position he gained by participating in a Regional Occupational Program Web design class.

But once officials learned he planned on taking his free app one step further and had begun marketing a paid version of it, his access was cut off.

In fact, the entire school website was temporarily shut down. And the role of webmaster at the high school, which had been filled by students for years, is now in the hands of a teacher.

“When Johnny first came to me with the app, I was very excited,” Principal Dan Andrus said. “We want students pushing the limits and doing positive things that are forward thinking. But I understand the district’s position when something becomes a commercial business venture that their responsibility and response changes.”

District officials said there was no way they could let Hammerlund make a profit off public resources.

California education codes provide specific guidelines as to what school districts can and cannot do to make money with public resources, such as renting classrooms during nonschool hours at a cost.

“It is sort of like an electronic classroom that he wants to rent,” Williams said. “Right now, there isn’t a statutory framework for that type of initiative. That is the fascination of new technologies, because it really tests existing legal structures and procedures which really haven’t caught up with technology yet.”

In an email to Hammerlund, Russell Miller, assistant superintendent of student services, made it clear that the district would not permit him to use resources from the district’s server to support the app.

“Please pursue your app business outside the district’s property,” Miller wrote in the email. “It is my hope that your app business becomes wildly profitable for you and it fulfills all your dreams. You must stop creating workarounds to access our property. It won’t be allowed.”

Miller went on to write, “The district has incurred many hours of employees’ time to ascertain the extent of your use of our property. At this time I have no intention of pursuing the recovery of those costs. But I assure you that if you continue in your efforts I will proceed without hesitation to make it very difficult for you and your app to succeed.”

Hammerlund has addressed the school board several times, most recently during a public comment period Tuesday, asking school trustees to evaluate the situation.

“I’ve been treated like some sort of criminal,” Hammerlund told board members. “I am not a rogue student that goes against the flow. I’ve been accused of hacking and back-dooring but never praised for my achievements. … I feel like I am being put on trial.”

More than 30 people, many of them friends and family, showed up at Tuesday’s meeting to support Hammerlund.

“To shut him down is not what we pay our taxes for,” said Rick Collins, whose daughter also attends the high school. “Kids like this should be put up as an example, but instead the district is trying to punish him for it.”

Miller said he was doing his job to protect district resources — in this case, the computer system.

“The app was pulling proprietary information from a confidential system to be sold to students,” Miller said. “We are a public entity, and we don’t let private individuals use public resources to make money.”

Andrus said a solution is being worked out that will allow Hammerlund to market his app without direct access to the server. And he hopes new policies will help the district avoid this situation in the future.

“We need to go back to our policies so that, in the future, we know how we are going to react to this type of situation so that we don’t have to come to a screeching halt,” Andrus said.

School board President Chris Ungar said the experience will push the board to update its policies.

“This is a discussion the board has to have,” Ungar said. “This is the kind of stuff we want to encourage our students to do. How do we get to a place where we protect the integrity of our system and what kinds of policies do we need in place so that students can use it for their talents to be successful? We have to look at current policies and see what will support our students and keep everyone safe.”

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