Despite flaws, schools install Internet filters to receive federal funds
By The Associated Press
Dale Alexander, the information technology director for Albuquerque, N.M., public schools, was not exactly a fan of filtering software for blocking pornography and other Web sites deemed inappropriate for children.
But when Congress required it of schools that receive certain technology grants, Alexander had no trouble deciding whether to install the software up to $14.7 million was at stake.
"There was a lot of money on the table," Alexander said. And it outweighed any arguments that good adult supervision not a filtering product is the best solution for dealing with unsavory online content.
All across the country, schools are installing filters or expanding their use despite flaws in the software, which sometimes blocks legitimate sites needed for lessons.
For the most part, schools had to install filters by the new school year, an unwelcome surprise for some students and teachers.
"It has left a lot of teachers scrambling to help kids get the information they need," said Tom Henning, a high school physics teacher in San Francisco.
In one case this summer, he said, a student researching race tracks for a paper found resources on them blocked as gambling sites.
In Albuquerque, the swim team couldn't access Web sites on swimsuits.
The federal Children's Internet Protection Act also requires filtering in libraries, but that provision is on hold after a federal court in Philadelphia struck it down as violating First Amendment guarantees. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is pending.
But the requirement for schools and their libraries was never challenged, partly because schools typically have greater leeway in restricting student conduct.
Affected programs include technology grants from the Education Department and the popular e-rate subsidies that are funded through telephone surcharges.
And while the law covers only sexually oriented materials, many districts are using the same filters to voluntarily block e-commerce, games, violence and other material.
For Tim Kajstura, a senior at Ossining High School in Ossining, N.Y., filters meant choosing a new senior project because a site for Red Hat Inc., a company he was going to profile, mysteriously got blocked.
"About half the sites I try to access for research on any given topic are blocked, many of them the most useful," he said. "What's the use of technology if we can't use it?"
At least one district, in Eugene, Ore., has rejected the grants in question about $7,000 rather than expand filtering to all schools.
"Filters are imperfect and give parents and students a sense of security that really is not there," said Les Moore, the district's director of computing and information services.
Filtering companies generally won't disclose blocking criteria, considering the information proprietary.
Most schools have policies for overriding blockages. Sometimes it's as simple as having a teacher do it on the spot. For others, it involves a community-based review committee or the filtering company itself.
Some school administrators initially worried about filtering have come to accept and even embrace the tool as useful for managing Internet resources and keeping students focused on the curriculum.
And while technically savvy students have found ways to fool and bypass filters, administrators say such attempts are rare and dealt with by threatening to cut off Internet privileges.
"The feeling from parents and staff both was, 'Why didn't we have this in place already?'" said Bob Stocking, director of instructional technology and media for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina. "We never heard from parents concerned about students' First Amendment rights."
Filtering technology has gotten better and Internet use more pervasive, making policies based solely on teacher supervision no longer practical, said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology at the Blue Valley School District near Kansas City.
"Certainly the law was pushing us into it, but in the end we felt like it was the right thing to do," he said.
Nonetheless, the Blue Valley schools official worries filters could impede teaching skills that kids need for life.
"You don't teach safety to kids in a basement. You have to get them out in the real world," he said. "Are we going to be able to teach our students Internet safety and effective use of the Internet in a gated community? We won't know that for years."
A National Research Council study in May concluded that simply passing laws or blocking computer access won't protect children from online pornography.
But even without the law, schools were already moving toward filters.
An Education Department study found 74% of schools filtered at least some computers in 2000, when the law was enacted. N2H2 Inc., a leading maker of filtering software for schools, saw sales jump last quarter by more than 75%.
Some districts, like Jefferson County, Colo., have now been obliged to expand filters to all schools, instead of letting individual schools decide.
Others, including Louisiana's Caddo Public Schools, had to develop Internet usage policies to go with existing filters.
Henning, the San Francisco teacher, worries that many kids will simply give up when filters erect research barriers. The schools that depend most on the federal grants are the poorer ones with a high proportion of underachievers, he notes.
"This law doesn't add anything to our classroom," he said. "It creates troubles, distractions and barriers to learning."
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