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Keeping Safe, Staying Smart

Internet filters may help your district meet 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, "Are 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?"

Complying with Congress

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 decision-making regarding what students can or cannot access on the Internet to third-party private companies. This is especially true when:

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.

Legitimate Overrides

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."

A Comprehensive Approach

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

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.

Nancy Willard,, is the director of Responsible Netizen at the University of Oregon's Center for Advanced Technology.