'Cyberporn' Is Not a School Problem, Experts Say
Any federal law that tried to crack down on minors' access to on-line pornography would probably have little impact on educational telecommunications, according to many educators.
Schools already can employ a variety of preventive measures to keep most student "cybersurfers" from gaining access to pornography and other illicit materials from school computers, those who administer educational-telecommunications networks say.
As Congress works on legislation to deregulate the telecommunications industry, much media attention has focused on what has been dubbed "cyberporn."
Both the House and the Senate held hearings this summer on the availability of on-line porn~ography to children, and the telecommunications bill approved by the Senate in July would permit the Federal Communications Commission to impose fines and imprisonment on those who make such materials available to minors.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has also introduced a separate measure that would give the Department of Justice the authority to prosecute such cases.
There are no such provisions in the House telecommunications bill. Neither Senate bill specifically discusses school access, and most observers say "cyberporn" is not a major problem for schools.
Home Use Likelier
Much of the concern about children's access to electronic pornography was generated by a study, produced this spring by a student at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, that most experts say wildly exaggerated the prevalence of such materials on-line, and by a subsequent cover story in Time magazine about the study.
Although such materials do exist--in commercial on-line services, public Internet forums, or the World Wide Web, a growing segment of the Internet that contains images as well as text--the average school user is unlikely to see them, most educators argue, because student use of on-line resources is limited and students are usually closely supervised.
A relatively small number of schools provide classroom access to the Internet, the global computer network; students most often tap into telecommunications services from a central location, such as a media center or library.
"It's ironic, because generally speaking, the kids aren't getting [pornographic material] at school, they're getting it at home," said Cheryl S. Williams, the director of technology programs at the National School Boards Association.
Still, experts say, schools should take some precautions.
The Texas Education Network "home page" on the World Wide Web provides access to a collection of publications that deal with the question of appropriate on-line access for students. The network, known as TENET, also will hold a seminar for schools this fall to discuss the legal and ethical aspects of on-line access.
A new state law requires telecommunications companies to contribute to wiring classrooms, and thus many schools will be dealing with such questions in coming months, said Connie Stout, the director of TENET, a joint venture of the state education agency and the University of Texas system that gives K-12 educators low-cost access to the Internet. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)
Many districts, added Kurt A. Steinhaus, the director of learning technologies for the New Mexico Department of Education, are contracting with private companies to erect in their computer networks so-called firewalls, which bar access to certain information. Restrictive software can also be installed in individual machines.
But Frank Withrow, the director of learning technologies for the Council of Chief State School Officers, suggested that "a clever kid is going to get around anything."
Mr. Withrow, Ms. Stout, and Mr. Steinhaus all stressed that the best preventive measure is to teach students the appropriate use of the medium and discipline them if they abuse their privileges.
Some districts also require par-ental permission before students can use the Internet in school.
"The behavior should be similar to taking the class out on a field trip," Mr. Stout said.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Information Technology Association of America, based in Arlington, Va., has named a panel to study ways that service providers can regulate pornography on the Internet.