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The Cutting Edge

Censors and Sensiblility

Are some schools going too far in protecting kids from inappropriate Web sites?

March 30, 1998|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Students in a computer graphics class at Century High School in Santa Ana sit down at a computer, log on to the Internet and try to get applications for college scholarships.

They are denied access, but not because of their test scores, grade point averages or missed deadlines.

They can't get the information because the district uses a software program that filters out certain sites and key phrases on the Web.

In addition to obvious profanity, words such as "sports," "finance" and "entertainment" are banned. That means no immediate results during the recent Winter Olympics. No early reports about Asia's financial fiasco. And no financial aid information.

In classrooms throughout the Southland, students who get online are blocked from seeing sexually graphic or drug-related material--that's a given.

Yet a growing number of students are being cut off from benign sites--such as CNN, USA Today and ESPN--because "kids should not be using the computers for fun," Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Al Mijares said.

"Kids should be focused on their task," he said. "That task is to be educated--not entertained."

Santa Ana's policy is rooted in a dilemma facing school districts nationwide. It pits educators' desire to make kids Internet-savvy against parental demands to block out material deemed inappropriate.

School officials and librarians are finding themselves under increasing pressure to assume the uncomfortable role of moral monitor. Nearly a dozen state and federal bills are poised to ban the commercial distribution of sexual information to youngsters, as well as material deemed "harmful to minors."

Meanwhile, software developers, seeing potential profits, have come up with solutions that promise to purify what children see on the Net. But that technology has limitations.

Along the way, say critics, a child's ability to become computer-literate is being compromised.

"Children have a right to access this digital culture freely, as long as they can access it safely and responsibly," said media critic Jon Katz, author of "Virtuous Reality."

"For the first time, our children have the ability to be intellectually free. Parents can no longer control the information that reaches their children, and that terrifies a lot of people."

*

When it comes to kids and the Internet, educators are often vigilant in their quest to keep online smut away from curious youngsters. Sometimes they have good reason to be suspicious, as administrators at the Pasadena Unified School District learned earlier this year. In February, Pasadena officials discovered that some members of the staff were browsing through pornographic sites in labs where students usually studied.

For Pasadena, Santa Ana and thousands of schools nationwide, the way to control content in the classroom is through the use of software filters.

Such programs were first marketed in 1995. Billed as a way to empower parents and avoid restrictive federal legislation, the software was hailed as a way to keep children away from sexually explicit or racially offensive online material.

Though each filter is different, most work by scanning the text of a particular Web site and searching for groups of words that could be associated with certain subjects.

If any of the words pop up anywhere on a Web page--in any context--the person can't see the site.

Clearly, the technology isn't perfect. Software experts note that some programs, when used to cut out sites that use the word "sex," will block everything from pornography to information about the town of Middlesex, Conn.

"There's one that cut out the word 'couples' because of possible sexual connotations. Turns out the software also blocked PGA sites, because Fred Couples' name kept popping up," said David Banisar, a spokesman for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "Word choices used in filtering systems range from incredibly arbitrary to totally moronic."

The Palo Alto Unified School District in the heart of Silicon Valley shuns the filters for the same reason Santa Ana uses them--to avoid lawsuits filed by angry parents. After reviewing several filtering programs last year, officials decided to forgo them because of technical inconsistencies.

The software gave parents a false sense of security and made the district legally vulnerable, said Nancy Palmer, coordinator of educational technology for the Palo Alto district.

"Porn sites were still getting through," Palmer said. "At a certain point, we realized that even good technology couldn't substitute for good supervision."

*

Without question, Santa Ana's setup is among the most restrictive in the region.

Students and teachers get access to the Internet through a proxy server, a machine that automatically bans all material deemed objectionable by the district.

The computer system also uses a software program called Web Tracker, which purports to block inappropriate material from students accessing the Net from any of Santa Ana's 48 campuses.

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