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Filtering Software Poses Unwelcome Classroom Limits

Federal law requires schools to block pornographic and other inappropriate Web sites. But students find it hinders research access.


Dale Alexander, the information technology director for Albuquerque public schools, was hardly a fan of filtering software designed to block pornography and Web sites deemed inappropriate for children.

But when Congress required it of schools that receive certain technology grants, Alexander had no trouble deciding whether to install the software. After all, as much as $14.7 million was at stake.

"There was a lot of money on the table," he said. And that outweighed any arguments that good adult supervision--not an imperfect filtering product--is the best solution for dealing with unsavory online content.

All across the country, schools are installing filters or expanding their use despite flaws in the software, which sometimes blocks legitimate Web sites that are needed for lessons.

For the most part, schools had to install filters by the new school year. It was an unwelcome surprise for some students and teachers.

"It has left a lot of teachers scrambling to help kids get the information they need," said Tom Henning, a high school physics teacher in San Francisco.

In one case this summer, he said, a student researching race tracks for a paper found resources on them blocked as gambling sites.

In Albuquerque, the swim team couldn't access sites about swimsuits.

The federal Children's Internet Protection Act also requires filtering software in libraries, but that provision is on hold after a federal court in Philadelphia struck it down as violating 1st Amendment guarantees. An appeal is pending.

The requirement for schools--including their libraries--was never challenged, partly because schools typically have greater leeway in restricting student conduct.

While the law covers only sexually oriented materials, many districts are using the same filters to voluntarily block sites that feature games, shopping and violence.

The filtering software forced Tim Kajstura, a senior at Ossining High School in Ossining, N.Y., to choose a new senior project because a site for Red Hat Inc., a software company he was going to profile, mysteriously got blocked.

"About half the sites I try to access for research on any given topic are blocked, many of them the most useful," he said. "What's the use of technology if we can't use it?"

The law affects some technology grants from the Education Department and the popular e-rate subsidies that are funded through telephone surcharges.

At least one district, in Eugene, Ore., has opted to reject the grants in question--totaling about $7,000--rather than expand filtering to all its schools.

"Filters are imperfect and give parents and students a sense of security that really is not there," said Les Moore, the district's director of computing and information services.

Filtering companies generally won't disclose the criteria they use to block content because they consider them proprietary.

Most schools have policies for overriding blocks. Sometimes it's as simple as having a teacher do it. For others, it involves a community-based review committee or the filtering company.

Some school administrators who were reluctant to install filters have come to accept and even embrace them as useful for managing Net resources and keeping students focused on the curriculum.

And though technically savvy students have found ways to fool and bypass filters, administrators say such attempts are rare and can be easily dealt with by threatening to cut off Internet privileges.

"The feeling from parents and staff both was, 'Why didn't we have this in place already?' " said Bob Stocking, director of instructional technology and media for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina. "We never heard from parents concerned about students' 1st Amendment rights."

Besides, with Net use more pervasive and filtering technology improving, it's no longer practical to rely solely on teachers to supervise Web surfing, said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology at Blue Valley School District near Kansas City, Mo.

Nonetheless, Moore worries filters could prevent kids from learning skills they will need as adults.

"You don't teach safety to kids in a basement. You have to get them out in the real world," he said. "Are we going to be able to teach our students Internet safety and effective use of the Internet in a gated community? We won't know that for years."

A National Research Council study in May concluded that simply passing laws or blocking computer access won't protect children from online pornography.

But even without the law, schools were already moving toward filters.

An Education Department study found that 74% filtered at least some computers in 2000, when the law was enacted. N2H2 Inc., a leading maker of filtering software for schools, saw sales jump last quarter by more than 75%.

Some districts, such as Jefferson County, Colo., have been obliged to expand filters to all schools, instead of letting individual schools decide.

Others, including Louisiana's Caddo Public Schools, had to develop Internet usage policies to go with existing filters.

Henning, the San Francisco teacher, worries that many kids will simply give up when filters erect research barriers. To make matters worse, he said, the schools that depend most on the federal grants are the poorer ones with a high proportion of underachievers.

"This law doesn't add anything to our classroom," he said. "It creates troubles, distractions and barriers to learning."

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