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Keeping safe staying smart: Internet filters may help your district meet the recent federal guidelines, but you may be missing a chance to teach students how to use the Web responsibly.

On the evening of May 19, 2002, 13-year-old Christina Long was dropped off at the local Danbury, Conn., mall by her aunt. When her aunt, whom she lived with, came to pick her up, she wasn't there.

Her body was found several days later. The police's investigation found that Christina had been using the Internet to meet men and arrange for sexual encounters. This particular encounter went very wrong. Her friends knew what she was doing, but apparently none of them recognized that her actions could lead to possible danger. None of them had reported her actions to a responsible adult. Her aunt and other adults failed to recognize and respond to the clues that her online life was leading her into danger.

While her online interactions took place at home, this event clearly raises the question of school responsibility related to Internet safety education for both students and their parents. Believing that the job of protecting students from Internet dangers has been done by installing filtering software at school is a prescription for more incidents such as this.

For administrators the question should not be, 'gee we protecting students using the Internet in school?" The question should be, "Are we providing our students with the knowledge, skills and motivation to use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner, regardless of where they have access?"


In December 2000, Congress enacted the Children's Internet Protection Act. This law requires school districts seeking federal funding for technology to install a "technology protection measure" that will protect against access to material considered harmful for minors. The law also calls for districts to develop an Internet Safety Plan.

The vast majority of education decision-makers interpret this law to mean their districts have to use commercial filtering software.

Last May the National Research Council issued its report, Youth Pornography and the Internet. The NRC reports that much of the focus of attention to address Internet concerns has been on technology solutions.

"Technology solutions seem to offer quick and inexpensive fixes that allow adult caregivers to believe that the problem has been addressed, and it is tempting to believe that the use of technology can drastically reduce or eliminate the need for human supervision. [But technology should not be considered an adequate] substitute for education, responsible adult supervision, and ethical Internet use."

The report, concluded: "... (D)eveloping in children and youth an ethic of responsible choice and skills for appropriate behavior is foundational for all efforts to protect them."

"My feeling is that the filtering mandate has cost millions and the net result is children who are no more safe today than they were before CIPA, probably less safe," says Art Wolinsky, a former high school teacher and technology director for the Online Internet Institute. "Districts feel they are protected because they are in compliance with CIPA, so now they can take the easy way out and do less in education, supervision and professional development than they otherwise might have."

The NRC committee made several visits to schools where filtering was installed. Educators at those schools were asked why they use filters. "In virtually every school the committee visited," notes Herb Lin, director of the NRC project, "avoiding controversy and/or liability for exposing children to sexually explicit material was the primary reason offered."

Significant external pressure has been placed on districts to install filtering software. Administrators should not be faulted for taking actions they think are in the best interests of their students. But it is necessary to review past decisions in light of new information.

The case against placing primary reliance on the use of commercial filtering to address Internet dangers and concerns in schools is simple; often districts use this as a surrogate for education and supervision regarding Internet use.

In the preface to the NRC report, Dick Thornberg, committee chair, chides school officials and others for seeking "surrogates to fulfill the responsibilities of training and supervision needed to truly protect children from inappropriate sexual materials on the Internet."

Filtering software is not infallible, it will not protect against all dangers, and it is not present on every computer. Ultimately, the only way to protect young people from the dangers present on the Internet is to prepare them to make safe and responsible choices. This preparation requires education and continued adult involvement.

"Virtually all of the high school students to whom the committee spoke said that their Internet savvy came from experience, and they simply learned to cope with certain unpleasant Internet experiences," Lin says.

In 2002, the Girl Scout Research Institute reported the results of its study, The Net Effect, on teen girls' use of the Internet.

"We found that the vast majority of girls are not receiving guidance from their teachers related to Internet safety," notes Michael Conn, director of the Girl Scout Research Institute.

Why is this the school district's problem? Schools have become the universal location where young people learn about the Internet. Districts have an important obligation to help young people learn to use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner.

There is a lack of local control and public accountability when schools use commercial filtering software.

When school districts implement the use of commercial filtering software, school officials have delegated, or abdicated, virtually all decisionmaking regarding what students can or cannot access on the Internet to third-party private companies. This is especially true when:

* The blocking category definitions and categorization decisions are not based on education standards and the software cannot be configured to meet local community standards.

* The lists of blocked sites, search/block keywords, methods used to compile and categorize the lists, and blocking criteria and standards are protected by the company as confidential trade secret information.

* Corporate officials are not subject to a vote of the local community. There is no publicly available information regarding the identity and background of corporate officials, investors and major customers of the company whose interests may be influencing blocking decision-making standards.

Many reports of these products have found that they are blocking based on inappropriate viewpoint discrimination. There is a strong incentive on the part of filtering companies to err on the side of caution and block access to material that might be offensive to some customers.

It is argued that local control has been retained because the school district has selected the categories to be blocked and can override the filter to provide access. Neither argument is persuasive. The selection of categories is made without full and complete access to information regarding what types of sites are blocked under those categories. The process to override the filter in most schools is so time-consuming and burdensome that requests to override are simply not made. By ,default, the decision of the filtering company is final.

Filtering software is blocking access to appropriate, educationally relevant material that is significantly interfering with the effective educational use of the Internet in school.


A New York City high school teacher, John Elfrank-Dana, says he is amazed to find that his students are unable to access sites discussing "terrorism" because of the filtering product installed by his district. "We are located just a quarter mile from the World Trade Center, and my students cannot conduct research on terrorism. When students efforts to learn are thwarted like this it is very frustrating," he says.

In various site visits conducted by the NRC committee, students "often reported that information on blocked sites might have been useful for legitimate academic research purposes" and teachers reported that "educationally relevant sites were blocked regularly," the report says.

Because overriding the filter is a time-consuming task, addressing the deficiencies in the filtering technology is a job that has been shifted to an already over-worked school staff.

"Our district did not use filtering prior to CIPA," says John F. Adsit, administrator of the online education program at Jefferson County (Colo.) School District. "We relied on education and supervision, which worked very well. During this time, a local news station requested our Internet use logs. They were unable to find even one instance of a student attempting to access pornography. Now, because of CIPA, we have installed filtering software. Overblocking is a major concern. Many teachers and students have become frustrated by their inability to access perfectly appropriate material. But we simply do not have the staff time necessary to override the system to provide access."


The following are the essential components of a comprehensive approach to address the safe and responsible use of the Internet.

* Place a strong focus on the effective educational use of the Internet. When students are actively engaged in exciting Internet learning, the opportunities and inclinations for misuse are significantly reduced. The foundation for this strong educational focus is professional development and curriculum development.

* Enact a comprehensive Internet-use policy that addresses issues related to the use of the Internet. It should also provide the foundation for educational programs addressing the safe and responsible use of the Interact. This policy should address access to inappropriate Internet material by students and staff, the safety and security of students when using electronic communication, misuse and illegal use of the Internet including copyright, plagiarism, harmful speech, computer security, and the unauthorized disclosure of personal information by students.

* Follow a strategy that reflects an understanding of the age of the students. The focus for elementary students should be on limiting access to safe Internet places for accessing information and communicating. Elementary students do not have the knowledge or skills to adequately protect themselves on the open Internet. By middle school, the strategy should shift. Students of this age are freely using the Internet from a variety of locations. The focus should be on comprehensive education and effective supervision and monitoring that is sufficient to detect and respond to misuse.

* Provide comprehensive education to staff, students and parents regarding responsible Internet-use skills, as appropriate to their age and understanding. This education should prepare students to independently protect their personal safety when using the Internet, respond effectively to Internet concerns, and abide by their responsibilities as "cybercitizens." Incorporate Internet safety issues into other curriculum areas, such as addressing online predation in sex education classes.

* Develop or use an educational Web site that channels use of sites that have been reviewed by educators, librarians and other professionals. These sites should be vetted to present accurate, educationally relevant information in an appropriate manner. Limit elementary students access to these pre-reviewed educationally appropriate sites unless the teacher is closely supervising them. Direct or channel secondary students to such sites, while allowing for open access when necessary and appropriate.

* Established a safe electronic communication system that promotes communication for educational purposes only.

* Establish supervision and monitoring systems that ensure accountability. Students and staff should know that they have limited privacy in their Internet use through the school system. Offer parents the ability to have access to the Internet records of their children so that they can assure themselves that their children are using the Internet at school in accord with family values.

* Respond with appropriate discipline in the event of misuse, using such instances as "teachable moments." Additionally, review instances of misuse to reevaluate the district's approach.

* Use a variety of technologies to support this comprehensive approach, including technologies that block access to sites that have rated themselves as sexually explicit or inappropriate for minors; technologies that limit or guide students to educationally appropriate sites; technologies that protect against unwanted commercial or pornographic electronic communication; and technologies that facilitate effective monitoring of student use.

By shifting to an approach that retains local control, protects younger students and empowers older students and holds them accountable, school districts can help young people develop effective filtering and blocking systems that will reside in the hardware that sits upon their shoulders.

Interpreting CIPA

Some districts are finding online filters aren't the only way to meet the government's regulations

The vast majority of education decision-makers have interpreted the provisions of the Children's Internet Protection Act to require the use of commercial filtering software. However, it is probable that CIPA can be interpreted to allow for the use of a variety of technologies. (The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has a new report on CIPA that was not available at press time. An up-to-date analysis of this issue will be contained at shortly after the NTIA report is released.)

Any technology, or combination of technologies, that analyzes Internet traffic (filters) or limits/directs access to Internet material (blocks) that is used for the purpose of protecting against access to potentially harmful material, should be considered appropriate to meet the CIPA requirements. School districts should be held accountable to the local community, and only the local community, for their selection of a specific technological approach.

A comprehensive education and supervision approach could make use of a variety of technologies that allow school officials to retain local control, including:

* Blocking Blocking access to sites that have rated themselves as adult or sexually explicit using the Internet Content Rating Association system,

* Limited Access to Content or Services Limiting or directing student access to content or services that have been pre-reviewed and determined educationally appropriate. This may include educational Web sites developed by a district or other educational institution, or commercial subscription services for content and/or electronic communication. A variety of technologies can be used to limit or direct access to these safe, educational environments.

* Intelligent (Filtered) Monitoring Use of monitoring technologies that engage in an intelligent analysis of usage traffic to detect activity that raises the suspicion of the potential of misuse.

* SPAM-Control Technologies Use of technologies to restrict unwanted commercial or pornographic e-mail.

Safety Research

For more information about Internet safety, visit these Web sites or consult the following books:

Online Internet Institute

Responsible Netizen Institute

Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet: A Guide for Educators

Checklist for the Development of a Comprehensive Safe and Responsible Internet Use Plan

Analysis of the Constitutionality and Advisability of the Use of Commercial Filtering in U.S. Public Schools, doc

Filtering Software: The Religious Connection

Youth, Pornography, and the Internet, National Research Council

Net Effect: Girls and New Media. Girl Scout Research Institute

Filtering out the Filth: Eugene schools use traditional methods to block inappropriate material,

The best Internet filter: It's in students' minds, not their computers

A new study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation examines access to health information sites that are blocked by Internet filters,

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration's latest report on CIPA

Nancy Willard, nwillard@oregon., is the director of Responsible Netizen at the University of Oregon's Center for Advanced Technology.
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Author:Willard, Nancy
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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