Internet filters used in schools to prevent students and staff members from accessing inappropriate material and social-networking sites may have unintended—and potentially dangerous—consequences, according to an authority on school Internet safety.
Nancy E. Willard, the executive director of the Eugene, Ore.-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, says some administrators are unable, or don’t know how, to override the filters to monitor cyberbullying, warning signs of suicide, and threats of school violence that show up on social-networking sites.
Many students use the networking sites to create online journals, or “blogs,” and communicate with friends. (“Social-Networking Web Sites Pose Growing Challenge for Educators,” Feb. 15, 2006)
But they also can easily be used to harass other students or post threatening material, and several teenagers have been arrested for threatening school violence on the sites this school year.
Ms. Willard said that while Internet filters are a reasonable tool for schools to use, “an immediate policy change should be that all school [safety] personnel must have the right and ability to override [the filters] and investigate these concerns.”
When students are considering suicide or are potentially violent, she said, it is “highly probable, if not virtually guaranteed, that this material is online.”
She noted that Eric Harris, a gunman in the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, and Jeff Weise, the student who carried out the 2005 Red Lake High School shootings, both posted violent material online before they killed students, staff members, and themselves at their schools.
John Doyle, the vice president of marketing for Secure Computing, the San Jose, Calf.-based maker of SmartFilter, a widely used filter in schools, said the company’s product can be easily customized to give specific users unfettered access to the Internet.
“One of the reasons for the success [of SmartFilter] is that it’s easy for a non-rocket-scientist to use it,” he said.
Despite the popularity of products like SmartFilter, many students know how to circumvent the filters, usually because they want access to the increasingly popular social-networking sites, such as MySpace.com and Xanga.com, Ms. Willard said.
“If a principal can’t override the system, then they should go down to the computer lab, find the most technologically savvy kid, and find out how to do it,” she said.