Schools & the Internet

In at least three Tri-State school districts, problems associated with filtering through key words or letters apparently don't e

In at least three Tri-State school districts, problems associated with filtering through key words or letters apparently don't e

November 11, 2002|BY ANDREW SCHOTZ

There was nothing obscene about the Dallas Cowboys' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1996 Super Bowl - unless you were a Steelers fan.

Would a computer agree?

Larra Clark, a spokeswoman for the American Library Association, in Chicago, said a search for "SuperBowl XXX" would be blocked if XXX were interpreted as a symbol for X-rated instead of the Roman numeral 30.

Or, Clark said, a student writing a report about NASA may be thwarted from looking up "Mars exploration." Why? S-E-X is blocked.


In at least three Tri-State school districts, though, those problems associated with filtering through key words or letters apparently don't exist.

The filtering systems used in those local districts are based on a database of acceptable Web sites, not key words. Human beings, drawing on common sense, examine Web sites for content, so football and space exploration are acceptable.

Still, through computer error or human error, there are pitfalls in filtering programs, the American Library Association argued when it successfully sued to overturn the federal government's Children's Internet Protection Act.

The Children's Internet Protection Act required libraries to install filters or blocking programs on all computers with Internet access or else lose federal funding.

But on May 31, a federal three-judge panel in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the Children's Internet Protection Act violates patrons' First Amendment rights and struck the act down.

The government's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is pending.

Public libraries don't have to abide by the Children's Internet Protection Act as long as the injunction stands, but schools do. Clark said the American Library Association does not represent schools and no school organization ever joined the suit as a plaintiff.

Washington County Public Schools use a system designed by a California-based company called Websense.

Websense has 81 categories of Web sites that are blocked, said Erin Patrick, a public relations specialist for the company.

The system is actually designed for the corporate world, to keep employees from peeking at certain Web sites during work hours.

School districts now use Websense, too, to safeguard their students, Patrick said. She estimated that 10 percent of the clients are school districts.

Blocked Web sites range from "the very innocent to the very extreme," Patrick said.

Customers choose the categories they want blocked and can appeal Websense's decisions.

The Washington County school system filters out sites containing pornography and violence as well as mail-order and auction sites, among others.

Williamsport High School junior Derek Artz said he used to click on eBay last year and call up interesting items to sketch for his technical drawing class. This year, the site is blocked, so he goes elsewhere for ideas.

To research comedian Charlie Chaplin, junior Caleb Benchoff turned to the search engine called Google, which produces long lists of Web sites related to almost any topic.

Students know about the limits, but aren't hampered much by them, Benchoff said as he sat next to Artz at computers in the school library.

Benchoff said there are rare instances in which potential sources are inaccessible. For example, he said, someone looking up model Heidi Klum for a German class project can't visit a supermodel Web site that might include revealing photos.

David Mundey, the manager of telecommunication network services for the Washington County Board of Education, said administrators and principals can override the filter with passwords, if needed. The passwords are changed each year.

The Greencastle-Antrim School District in Franklin County, Pa., uses a database filtering system from a company called N2H2, said William Baker, the district's technology coordinator.

Baker said his district doesn't block commerce sites, which family consumer science students use when they have to shop within a budget.

The state of West Virginia has a closed wide area network through which individual districts connect to the Internet, said Nancy Kilmon, the director of research and technology for the Berkeley County, W.Va., school district.

Kilmon said the database keeps pace as new words and acts crop up or change meanings.

The filter does not cover hook-ups to the Internet outside of the wide area network, but Berkeley County does not have any, Kilmon said.

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