IT Infrastructure & Management

Filtering Fixes

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — August 31, 2009 12 min read
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Attempting to use online social-networking tools, read blogs, or see multimedia presentations on a classroom computer can generate a message that’s become all too familiar in many American schools: Access Denied.

So what teachers and students in Trussville, Ala., are doing on the Internet might be considered illicit activity in other districts across the country. Lessons in the 4,100-student district near Birmingham include YouTube videos and film trailers, Internet chats with peers in Nigeria or award-winning children’s authors, even blogging sessions and Web research on open search engines such as Google.

Faced with concerns about Internet predators, cyberbullying, students’ sharing of inappropriate content on social networks, and the abundance of sexually explicit or violent content online, many school leaders and technology directors are placing tighter restrictions on Web access to shield students from potential harm.

Yet in Trussville and other like-minded school systems, educators and school boards are instead expanding access to online resources, including social-networking sites, for students and teachers. Instead of blocking the many exit ramps and side routes on the information superhighway, they have decided that educating students and teachers on how to navigate the Internet’s vast resources responsibly, safely, and productively—and setting clear rules and expectations for doing so—is the best way to head off online collisions.

“We are known in our district for technology, so I don’t see how you can teach kids 21st-century values if you’re not teaching them digital citizenship and appropriate ways of sharing and using everything that’s available on the Web,” said Shawn Nutting, the technology director for the Trussville district. “How can you, in 2009, not use the Internet for everything? It blows me away that all these schools block things out” that are valuable.

The Internet filters used in most schools allow educators to carefully screen Web sites by keyword or category to ensure that students can’t access obscene images, get diverted by online games, hack in to confidential files, or use software programs that can damage school computers. That security, however, has come at a cost, many observers say.

Shawn Nutting, the director of technology for the Trussville city schools in Alabama, helped guide the district’s vision for online access, easing restrictions imposed by Internet filters and teaching digital responsibility.

“The majority of our schools are overblocking and overcensoring the Web,” said Wesley Fryer, the executive director of Storychasers Inc., a nonprofit organization that hosts a digital storytelling site that provides historical resources to Oklahoma schools and communities. Mr. Fryer, a digital-learning consultant and former elementary school teacher in Oklahoma City, writes frequently about educational technology issues on his blog, Moving at the Speed of Creativity.

“Some of that is understandable because of the risk-averse, conservative nature of schools,” he said. “My position is not ‘don’t block,’ but let’s filter reasonably and let’s also talk with students about choices and digital literacy and ethics, and let’s prepare kids for the unfiltered Web.”

Advocating Openness

While schools are required by federal and state laws to block pornography and other content that poses a danger to minors, Internet-filtering software often prevents students from accessing information on legitimate topics that tend to get caught in the censoring process: think breast cancer, sexuality, or even innocuous keywords that sound like blocked terms. One teacher who commented on one of Mr. Fryer’s blog posts, for example, complained that a search for biographical information on a person named Thacker was caught by his school’s Internet filter because the prohibited term “hacker” is included within the spelling of the word.

When the Trussville city schools broke off from Alabama’s Jefferson County district five years ago, leaders of the Trussville system decided that after securing the computer network and taking all the legally required steps to ensure Internet safety, they would err on the side of openness when it came to accessing Web content.

“We know kids use these tools, so we really feel obligated to help kids use them right and prepare them for what they face in the world every day,” said Superintendent Suzanne Freeman, who has two teenagers attending high school in the district. “Kids have access to a lot [on the Internet], whether we want to believe it or not. I would worry about it if we didn’t prepare kids to use these tools properly.”

Training Students Early

That philosophy has served students in Trussville’s Paine Primary School well, according to library media specialist Rachel Brockman.

The K-2 school provides e-mail addresses to each of its 880 students and maintains accounts on the Facebook and Twitter networking sites. Children can also interact with peers in other schools and across the country through protected wiki spaces and blogs the school has set up.

How Internet Filters Work

1. A school or district buys software or a service that blocks inappropriate sites, identified by keyword or category. Some products allow districts to customize lists of keywords.

2. When someone using a school computer attempts to access a site with content the filter has identified as inappropriate, a message announces the site is blocked.

3. Useful educational resources may get blocked if they are related to the keywords, such as sites that have information on human anatomy.

4. Some districts have procedures for requesting that a site be “unblocked” if a teacher wants to use the sources for lessons and assignments. After reviewing such requests, school administrators decide whether the site is suitable for the classroom.

5. Monitoring and tracking programs capture and record where students go online, how much time they spend, and what goes on in instant-messaging chats. They can also be used to manage time spent on the computer.

6. Students have figured out ways to trick or work around filters, and there are now products on the market to unblock filtered sites.

Sources: Common Sense Media; Education Week

“We basically start to train students as early as kindergarten about things to look for out there and strategies to help them stay safe” on the Internet, Ms. Brockman said. “Rather than saying this is a scary tool and something bad could happen, instead we believe it’s an incredible tool that connects you with the entire world out there. ... [L]et’s show you the best way to use it.”

As Trussville students move through the grades and encounter more-complex educational content and expectations, their Internet access is incrementally expanded. The district also varies filter levels for teachers, allowing them to call up Facebook or YouTube in class. They can also request that other sites be unblocked that have an application to their class lessons.

For a 12th grade English literature class, teacher Eric Jenkins was able to use a YouTube clip about the upcoming Hollywood film “Legion” to help students identify the themes and archetypes in popular culture that were influenced by John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem Paradise Lost.

Students in Mr. Jenkins’ classes at Hewitt-Trussville High School use the Internet regularly to research papers, to blog about texts they’ve read, and to learn the rules of digital citizenship, meaning responsible Web surfing.

“I’m a big advocate for experiential learning, but it’s kind of hard to teach Internet etiquette or rules of how to act and interact online without exposing them to the stuff that’s out there,” Mr. Jenkins said. “It’s hard to teach those things in a vacuum.”

Media experts say such real-world experience is critical to helping students tap the Internet for the kinds of practical tasks they will encounter every day for professional and personal purposes.

Students set up personal login and password information during at Paine Primary School in Trussville, Ala., on Aug. 20. The school district is starting to open Internet resources to students and encouraging responsible usage, rather than clamping down on access.

“The best filters we can provide to kids are the ones we build in their brains,” said Rebecca Randall, the vice president for outreach for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that provides free class materials and parent education programs to districts on Internet safety.

In 2001, the Children’s Internet Protection Act instituted new requirements for schools to establish policies and safeguards for Internet use as a condition of receiving federal E-rate funding.

Many districts have responded by restricting any potentially troublesome sites. But many educators and media specialists complain that the filters are set too broadly and cannot discriminate between good and bad content. Drawing the line between what material is acceptable and what’s not is a local decision that has to take into account each district’s comfort level with using Internet content, said Ann Flynn, the director of the educational technology program for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.

“We recognize that districts have to have the tools in place to meet guidelines to be in compliance with federal requirements,” she said. “But a really good dose of common sense can’t be emphasized enough.”

Ms. Flynn points to a survey conducted in 2002 by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found that setting filter levels high did not necessarily block more inappropriate content, but could prevent students from getting important health information that they might need for school or personal purposes.

And sometimes local sensibilities can get schools in trouble.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Tennesee’s Knox County and Nashville school districts on behalf of several students and a school librarian for blocking Internet sites related to gay and lesbian issues. While the districts’ filtering software prohibited students from accessing sites that provided information and resources on the subject, it did not block sites run by organizations that promoted the controversial view that homosexuals can be “rehabilitated” and become heterosexuals. Last month, a federal court dismissed the lawsuit after school officials agreed to unblock the sites.

Balancing Safety and Access

Several groups have provided guidance to help schools balance safety and access.

Students set up computer login and password information during the first week of school at Paine Primary School.

The American Library Association’s Center for Intellectual Freedom, for example, recommends that schools minimize filtering so they do not infringe students’ rights to access information and to express themselves.

“Prohibiting young people from accessing Internet resources, including social-networking tools, does not teach safe behavior,” said Angela Maycock, the assistant director of the center. “Filtering leaves young people without the knowledge and experience they need to protect their own privacy online, and, more importantly, to engage in responsible speech.”

In Trussville and most public school districts nationwide, free-access social-networking sites such as MySpace are blocked or severely restricted. Video-sharing sites, like YouTube, are generally characterized as troublesome sites as well, although some districts allow teachers to use them in their classrooms.

Students generally want those opportunities at school as well. A national survey of middle and high school students found that most believe schools are not preparing them for the kinds of technology-based tasks that have become essential for success at school and at work, according to findings of the sixth annual survey from the Speak Up National Research Project, released in March.

Students are using personal technology tools more readily to study subject matter, collaborate with classmates, and complete assignments than they were several years ago, but they are generally asked to “power down” at school and abandon the electronic resources they rely on for learning outside of class, the survey found. Administrators generally cite safety issues and concerns that students will misuse such tools to dawdle, cheat, or view inappropriate content in school as reasons for not offering more open online access to students. (“Students See Schools Inhibiting Their Use of New Technologies,”, April 1, 2009.)

A report commissioned by the NSBA found that social networking can be beneficial to students, and urged school board members to “find ways to harness the educational value” of so-called Web 2.0 tools, such as setting up chat rooms or online journals that allow students to collaborate on their classwork. The 2007 report also told school boards to re-evaluate policies that ban or tightly restrict the use of the Internet or social-networking sites.

‘Hot Topic’

School leaders in Albemarle County, Va., near Charlottesville, did just such a reassessment when students complained that the filtering process for the 12,600-student district was blocking access to too many relevant and potentially useful resources.

“This issue was a hot topic for our students,” said Luvelle Brown, the district’s chief information officer. After students complained about being blocked from essential resources online, the district established a committee last year to re-evaluate its filtering policy.

Administrators and school board members agreed to allow access to most Web sites and then to decide which ones needed to be added to the “blocked” list. Any sites that were deemed pornographic or that could breach the district’s network were obvious targets. But the advisory committee agreed that sites with racist or other hateful materials were not. Free-access social networks, however, are banned.

Federal Requirements for Schools on Internet Safety

The Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, is a federal law intended to block access to offensive Web content on school and library computers. Under CIPA, schools and libraries that receive funding through the federal E-rate program for Internet access must:

• Have an Internet-safety policy and technology-protection measures in place. The policy must include measures to block or filter Internet access to obscene photos, child pornography, and other images that can be harmful to minors;
• Educate minors about appropriate and inappropriate online behavior, including activities like cyberbullying and social networking;
• Adopt and enforce a policy to monitor online activities of minors; and
• Adopt and implement policies related to Internet use by minors that address access to inappropriate online materials, student safety and privacy issues, and the hacking of unauthorized sites.

Source: Federal Communications Commission

Officials also set up a way for teachers and students to make a case that certain filtered sites be unblocked for their potential educational value.

“We ended up deciding that what was happening was that we were only blocking ourselves from those resources,” Mr. Brown said, referring to the resourcefulness of technologically adept students who have found ways to work around Internet filters.

“Whether we were allowing them or not, [students] were gaining access to those resources,” he said. “What we were more worried about was the need for students’ getting access to the information they needed.”

The Albemarle County district, like the Trussville schools, increased its professional development and support services for teachers to help them manage Internet use and teach students about the promise and potential dangers of online resources.

“We believe that you can’t have goals about kids’ collaborating globally and then block their ability to do that,” said Becky Fisher, the Virginia district’s technology coordinator.

As a former teacher, Ms. Fisher tends to champion her colleagues’ need for flexibility in using Web tools and helps them use the district’s Internet-safety curriculum to develop in students the discipline they need to use the Web appropriately.

“Before the new filtering policy, I was incredibly frustrated,” said Paula White, a teacher at Albemarle’s Crozet Elementary School.

Ms. White said her plan to have her students collaborate on a project with a school in England last year was almost derailed because the district’s filter blocked the conferencing site she needed to set up a video link between the classrooms. Now, such sites are more readily available, she said.

“It’s all about teaching them how to try to avoid getting into places they don’t want to be,” she said, “and if they should happen to get there, what to do to get out of them.”

Experts like Mr. Fryer of Storychasers have been trying to make that case to more school leaders.

“If we don’t want to take risks, let’s not let kids go outside for recess and let’s not let anyone go on the Internet,” Mr. Fryer said. “But if we recognize what’s developmentally appropriate, we know we need to get them outside exercising and playing in digital sandboxes and giving them opportunities to become ethical digital citizens.”

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Coverage of leadership is sponsored in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Filtering Fixes


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