On Halloween, I played a cruel trick. As kids at my door grabbed handfuls of Skittles, I grabbed a camera, snapped a few shots of the children and yelled, “I can’t wait to post these photos on the Internet!” You should have seen the looks of horror on those faces.

The parents’ faces, I mean. Kids couldn’t care less if their photos appear online, but most parents believe any image of their child on the Internet violates their privacy and sets out a buffet table for pedophiles.

Such fears have lately gripped my daughter’s elementary school. Weeks ago, the principal sent home a note asking permission to post photos of kids (no names, just photos) doing things that show how the school is using a magnet grant. But with a dose of clumsiness that has become a Department of Education trademark, the attached release form was strangely vague. Parents were expected to fill in blanks that asked … well, no one was sure.

Confused parents didn’t sign the release. Confusion bred suspicion, and now online safety is a common topic at morning drop-off. Our parent association newsletter recently warned us that photos and videos taken at school functions should not be posted on the Internet unless parents of ALL kids shown have given permission. If one nervous parent says no, then Grandma Fran in Omaha won’t get to watch a video clip of the school play on your Facebook page.

Ask parents why they feel uneasy about a photo of their child on the web, and most say they worry about perverts or identity theft. But most parents can’t say specifically how their children’s safety is threatened by online images showing the same nameless faces everyone sees when they walk past a schoolyard during recess. We simply believe criminals and perverts are out there, doing God knows what on the computer, so we demand schools play it safe.

Such fear-induced censorship contradicts American traditions of openness. I do not send my daughter to a public school expecting that what goes on inside that school will be off-limits to the public — not just to parents, but also to taxpayers. The huge sums spent on public education demand scrutiny and accountability, yet most schools are on lockdown when it comes to letting the pubic see how tax dollars are spent. Something’s wrong when a public school can’t post images of kids being taught without making sure parents first give permission.

There’s an alternative. Principals should boldly remind parents that public schools must be open to inspection. Educators should follow common-sense photo guidelines: no names, group shots preferred, and no revealing poses or embarrassing situations. A few children’s whereabouts and images should be kept secret (for example, children in protective custody have always merited special consideration), but these are the exception. If you feel you qualify for such secrecy, make your case to the principal.

The result will be more openness and scrutiny, which could lead to better performance. People could go online and see what’s truly taking place in our public schools.

If not, then at least you would be able to post a video of your kid’s school play on Facebook and not worry about receiving a cease-and-desist letter.