Educators grapple with Internet censorship

Teachers at the Gwinnett County high school 16-year-old Kathryn Keegan attends sometimes assign students to watch educational videos on YouTube. Trouble is, the school’s Internet filtering system blocks the popular video-sharing website.

That means students who don’t have their own computers with unfiltered Internet access often have a difficult time completing the homework, Keegan says.

“I think they (school officials) should kind of narrow down what sites we really do need, such as YouTube,” said Keegan, a student at Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology, who thinks the school system needs to be more selective in the websites it blocks. “If it’s an educational video, they should leave that open to us. There are a lot of sites blocked on our computers.”

As schools across Georgia expand technology to students, educators increasingly struggle with how much of the Internet should be censored. Education advocates say blocking too much can create barriers to learning and acquiring digital literacy skills vital for college and career readiness. Over-filtering often occurs, they say, because school districts want to avoid controversy and complaints from some parents.

Fulton County school officials are dealing with that dilemma as they plan to give thousands of middle and high school students mobile devices like tablets or small laptops to take home this fall to boost classroom learning — the most expansive effort yet by a Georgia school district to make technology available to students.

“It’s a balance between arming our kids with the ability to make really smart choices and making those choices for them in a filtering environment,” said Scott Muri, Fulton deputy superintendent for academics.

Finding that right balance, between wide access to instructional information and protection from inappropriate or harmful material, can be difficult. Some school districts are facing lawsuits over the issue. If schools are too restrictive with Internet filtering, education advocates say, students – especially children with no computers or Internet access at home —are at risk of losing out.

Most school systems use Internet filtering software and abide by the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act. Passed in 2000, the act was intended to block images deemed “obscene,” or “child pornography,” or material “harmful to minors.” It requires public libraries and schools receiving certain federal funding to install software filters on their Internet-accessible computers.

But many schools across the nation go well beyond what the law requires, banning sites like Hotmail, YouTube, Facebook, Google Docs and other social media and interactive and collaborative websites, according to a recent report by the American Library Association, which looked at the impact of the federal act.

“We’re censoring big chunks of the Internet because we’re afraid of certain content,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, a deputy director with the American Library Association. “Rather than teaching kids how to handle that and … how to be responsible Internet users, we’re just blocking things.”

School systems in Georgia and other states typically buy software and set up categories or websites they want blocked, and the decisions are made by groups of teachers, principals and school system administrators.

Metro school systems’ filtering software blocks certain categories including those related to social networks and some streaming media. In addition, topics like abortion, gambling, hacking and cyberbullying and personal sites and blogs are also off limits.

Fulton parents have questioned school officials in recent weeks about Internet filtering as the school system moves toward supplying students with the mobile devices, Muri said.

Parents like James Reese, whose son attends Westlake High School in south Fulton, want to make sure students aren’t being exposed to inappropriate material.

“We don’t want kids to have a device that’s being used for any type of activity other than for school use,” Reese said. “There’s so much out there kids could be seeing that they shouldn’t be seeing. I would think the district should keep whatever filtering software is available” for the mobile devices.

Fulton has a software filtering system provided by the company Palo-Alto Networks, and a web-filtering committee of teachers, principals and other administrators can make exceptions to blocked sites, if educators want to see them unblocked.

“Sometimes the filters filter out quality content,” Muri said. “We’re trying to give our kids more of that decision-making opportunity by arming them with the ability to be a digital citizen.”

DeKalb County schools use software filtering that blocks certain categories, but DeKalb allows teachers to override filtering if they see educational value in the material – so teachers don’t have to get permission to access certain blocked sites from IT or other school district professionals, said Gary Brantley, chief information officer for DeKalb schools.

“I think most districts are facing that … you either block it or unblock it. But you need more than two choices … there has to be some middle ground that allows the teacher to use judgment,” said Brantley.

In Gwinnett, if a site is blocked that a teacher or student believes is needed for instructional purposes, the school system has a “process that allows for review,” district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said in a released statement.

Blocked websites have landed some school systems in court. The ACLU is working to remove filtering software that blocks access to educational LGBT websites, such as the site for the Gay-Straight Alliance. The ACLU says selective blocking of LGBT web content violates the Equal Access Act, which requires equal access to school resources for all extracurricular organizations. The ACLU successfully sued a school district in Missouri that was blocking such LGBT websites.

In 2011, after a Gwinnett high school student complained that the system was filtering such LGBT sites, the school system backed off and allowed access, according to Chara Fisher Jackson, interim executive director for ACLU of Georgia. The issue has not emerged in other districts, she added.

Barry Fishman, professor of learning technologies at the University of Michigan, says students are increasingly getting around filtering, so schools and parents need to be more focused instead on educating students on how to best use the Internet.

“Simply blocking access to things for children only increases their curiosity about what’s being blocked,” he said. “So they (filters) provide sort of the veneer of security without really dealing with the problem.”

“The right approach is more about one of education and responsibility … students being well-educated in what online safety is all about, what are inappropriate sites … and generally becoming responsible and educated users of the networks.”