On its face, that expression is neither offensive nor disturbing. “Hey!” is an informal way to say hello. It indicates kindness, simple courtesy and an economy of words.

But a 13-year-old boy at Richland Middle School in Richland Hills was suspended for three days in December because he sent that simple message to every computer in the school using an archaic form of instant messaging. The software was created years ago in the old disk operating system used in earlier versions of personal computers.

This story has been making the rounds on the ‘net for the past few days (see MetaFilter, /.). It’s got all the hallmarks of something bound to catch the interest of a lot of geeks: a kid exploring and discovering how his computer actually works beyond simple point-and-clicking, an innocent mistake when demonstrating capabilities to friends, and an overbearing school administration. It might not have raised as much of a ruckus as it did, except that in the course of writing his article about the events, the columnist received an e-mail from one of the school administrators involved in the incident questioning the right of anyone not involved directly in the school system to criticize teaching and discipline techniques.

Too often, people who do not know the real world of public education feel that they are the ‘experts’ who have all the solutions and that their opinions are as valuable as those who live in this world daily.

I invite you, parents, our state representatives, and anyone else that thinks they know how a teacher or a district should react to ANY situation to come live with us for a while — be a substitute teacher for a few weeks and learn the real world of public education.

…more troubling is the notion that Sweeney does not believe that the rest of us have any right to question the decisions made by public educators.

Remember, we pay the salaries of the teachers and staff. We buy the computers. We pay for the buildings in which they are used. As long as public school is public, the Beverly Sweeneys of the world need to know that it is our right and duty to look over their shoulders and question what they do.

In this case, the punishment of Carl Grimmer was overkill, but the response of the school’s computer liaison shows that public education really does demand greater oversight from us outsiders, certainly not less.

Many of the discussions spurred by this event and the various responses from the people involved have been very interesting to read. It turns out that the kid and his parents have put up a page detailing their view of the events and the responses to them. It’s an entertaining read — everyone (except the school) seems to be handling everything quite reasonably.

iTunes: “Go” by Moby from the album Hackers 2 (1997, 3:59).