Internet filter presents quandary

Durango navigates what’s too much vs. what’s educational

Every generation of adults has tried, and failed, to prevent children from accessing socially dangerous kinds of information, be it knowledge of Elvis Presley’s swiveling hips, evolution or Lady Chatterley’s exploits with the gardener.

But the stakes of this Sisyphean comedy have changed with the pervasion of the Internet: With a few clicks of the mouse, children can stumble on images of pornography. While parents may hope that their children leave high school understanding the atrocities of the holocaust, few would want their 8-year-olds exposed to photographs of mass graves.

As the Durango school board ponders ways it can incorporate social-networking sites into the curriculum, James Torres, executive director of educational technology for the district, said educators and parents are negotiating the educational quandary already posed by the Internet:

On the one hand, empowering children to use technology is a district priority, and every grade has access to computers.

On the other hand, there’s the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which, since 2000, has required schools to filter students’ Internet access.

Currently, the district currently employs Asparo to filter its Internet. Its first function is to identify whether a site contains “adult” content. Secondly, the filter allows the district to create different Internet-user profiles for staff members, teachers, administrators and students, and limit access to content accordingly.

“It’s great because we can let teachers access video and sites such as Facebook, yet block it for students, so they don’t go to Youtube and start looking at nonsense videos,” said Torres.

Holes in the dyke

The complexity of Internet-censorship was evident at a recent school board meeting, when a Herald reporter tested the vigilance of the district’s filter using the public wireless network available in the administration building, which, Torres said, is the most aggressively filtered.

At first, all seemed well. The filter summarily blocked social-networking sites such as Facebook, while allowing access to the websites of various news outlets.

But the filter soon appeared to be easily flummoxed by social issues. Though the filter initially allowed access to The New Yorker’s website, it blocked a meticulously researched essay by its regular contributor Jill Lepore documenting the history of Planned Parenthood. Yet, when Googling “abortion,” the filter did not object to, a site that prominently displays altered images of fetuses.

And though the filter’s distaste for websites belonging to magazines aimed at young women proved profound, GQ magazine did not upbraid its fickle sensibilities.

According to GQ’s homepage the “most read article” of the moment was titled “Golden Globes: The Most Unforgettable Breasts in Movie History.” It featured a gallery of 25 photos depicting bare bosoms that, apparently, had set the silver screen alight. The 11th pair was too much for the reporter, but the filter didn’t blush.

Filter can be limiting

Julie Popp, the district’s public information officer, said that unlike reporters, students rarely use school computers without teacher supervision. But she acknowledged that the Internet filter wasn’t perfect, noting that when she first started working for the district a few weeks ago, the filter prevented her from accessing The Durango Herald’s website.

Animas Valley Elementary school teacher Kelly Von Stroh said that in computer labs, “monitors face outwards, so teachers can easily see what’s on children’s screens – which is a good practice at home too.”

Von Stroh said that while, “teachers do a great job of monitoring. If students have 30 minutes to research Bosnia, they don’t go in blankly. First, they prepare very specific questions ahead of time. I’ve never had an instance where a student found information that scared them,” Von Stroh said.

Torres said, if anything, the filter tends to be too limiting, “which is obviously the last thing we want. Right now, it doesn’t distinguish between kindergarten and high school students, so unfortunately, older students find their access to information too restrictive,” Torres said.

Torres’ concerns echo complaints raised last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Librarians’ Association that school Internet filters had become overly restrictive of students’ speech and were a disservice to public education.

Torres said students were sometimes unable to access legitimate educational resources because the filter had incorrectly categorized their content as “adult.” He recalled that when the Asparo filter was first installed, its default mode was so inflexible it blocked searches of “A. A. Milne and Winnie with Pooh” because it was suspicious of the word, “Pooh.”

More recently, Torres said a high school history class had been denied access to a site with “graphic holocaust images, because the filter rated them adult level. The teacher told us, and we actually had them unblock the site.”

Von Stroh said the district had been “extremely responsive” to requests that educational sites be unblocked.

“If you’re a prepared teacher, it’s not a problem,” Von Stroh said. “Durango’s very fortunate with technology and access compared to other schools.”