Starr Report Turns World Wide Web Into a Minefield for School Officials
Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report is making life difficult not only for President Clinton, but also for thousands of educators who have to decide whether their students should have access to it on the Internet.
Parts of Mr. Starr's 445-page report on possible impeachable offenses related to the president's relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky are so sexually explicit that, under normal circumstances, they would immediately be deemed off-limits, either by schools' "appropriate use" policies or by software programs designed to screen out pornography.
But the report's historical significance and its ubiquitous presence on the World Wide Web present school officials with a dilemma.
"You don't want to encourage kids to look at that stuff. But it's an issue that involves the president of the United States," said Carol L. Kennedy, the principal of John B. Lange Middle School in Columbia, Mo.
Even in communities where the local media spared their readers the report's most graphic details, they're all there--perhaps under a fig leaf of warning--on the Web sites of major newspapers, CNN, America Online, Congress itself, and a host of other outlets.
Many administrators decided that, although their students could read the report just about anywhere, they weren't going to do it on a school computer.
Bruce M. Whitehead, the principal at Hellgate Elementary School in Missoula, Mont., said his K-7 school used a software program to block access on school computers to any Web site containing the word "Starr."
Children can go through the full report with their parents, Mr. Whitehead said, but at his school, "I would rather be on the conservative side."
He acknowledged that the school was unlikely to succeed in a total blackout and said he expects 7th graders, who have some freedom to surf the Web, to inform their teachers if they see a site referring to the Starr report, which the teacher would then block.
A Unique Situation
But some educators said such restrictions put a damper on classes and other programs based on current events and news.
William H. Adkins, the director of information technology for the Highland Park school system in Dallas, said that, unlike pornography, which is stopped by the district's filtering technology, "this has been posted to sites that are legitimate places to go to for serious information."
After the report's Sept. 11 release, colleagues called Mr. Adkins over the weekend to warn him of the details it contained. The following Monday, he sent out an e-mail alert to each school advising supervisors to be on their toes.
But he didn't block it from the district's Internet server. "We considered blocking out 'Lewinsky' and any strings of terms containing that word--but what does that do to a current-events class or school debate teams?" Mr. Adkins said.
Schools that rely on Internet filtering products to keep out smut can't necessarily count on them to block the Starr report.
SurfWatch, on one hand, blocked the report "in its entirety because of the sexually explicit language throughout the document," said Theresa A. Marcroft, the director of marketing at the Los Altos, Calif., filtering company. "It doesn't matter whether it's a government report to us."
Its customers could download an updated "block list" with the Web addresses on which the report has been found--numbering more than 70 sites as of early last week.
But other filtering companies, including X-Stop and Cyber Patrol, did not block the report.
"The gist is that the U.S. House of Representatives has determined this is a document the American public should see. It's very much a current event," said Susan J. Getgood, the director of corporate communications for the Learning Company, which publishes Cyber Patrol, used by some 1,000 schools and districts.
Most filtering products allow customers to add individual sites to block lists, although that task becomes onerous when hundreds of sites are involved.
Some educators and other experts criticized members of the House for making the report available to students in the first place.
"It's as though they handed to schools a magazine in a brown paper wrapper," said Harold S. Koplewicz, the director of the New York University Child Study Center in New York. "They have material any school board would never have approved to be in the library or part of the curriculum."
Mr. Koplewicz said schools now had no choice but to enter into delicate explanations of Mr. Clinton's political and sex scandal
School people didn't miss the irony that on the same day the House voted to put the report on the Internet, a House committee held a hearing on a bill requiring schools to install Internet filtersagainst sexually explicit material if they wanted to receive a federal telecommunications subsidy.
More on the Way
But some educators also said that the potent mix of sensational and ubiquitous information is a sign of the times.
As teachers pull more and more curricular material from the Internet rather than carefully screened and sanitized textbooks, they need to recognize that some of it could be controversial, said Nancy Willard, the director of the Center for Responsible Use of Information Technologies at the University of Oregon.
"Teachers have to help kids put this into a framework they can process," depending on the age of the students, the community's values, and the goals of the curriculum, said Ms. Willard, who has campaigned with the American Library Association against requiring schools to install filtering devices.
"The question is not should we or should we not have filtering in schools," she added, "but how do we prepare our children to make safe and responsible choices given that they are living in an environment where they can and will have access to this material."
Vol. 18, Issue 3, Page 11Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Starr Report Turns World Wide Web Into a Minefield for School Officials