Over the next year, schools will be in danger of losing precious technology funding unless they can certify they have a filtering system that blocks obscene websites. The Children's Internet Protection Act requires that by Oct. 28, schools must certify that they are either in compliance with filtering requirements, or are in the process of becoming compliant by evaluating blocking software. For many schools, it will be easy to comply. According to the Consortium for School Networking, 75 percent of schools use filtering already. And while some believe this federal mandate is essential to protect children from pornography and predators who troll the Net, others believe that individual school districts should make their own decisions about safe use of the internet. "We believe schools should be a safe haven for children - a place for children to learn and grow, not cesspools for the destruction of the minds and souls of children," said Kristen Schultz, a legal policy analyst with the Family Research Council.
"I think parents and teachers should warn children of the dangers of porn but ultimately that is not enough," she said. "If there is no filtering, children who use sites like Yahoo all the time can access porn." CIPA guidelines require that schools have in place "a policy of internet safety for minors that includes the operation of a technology protection measure with respect to any of its computers with Internet access that protects against ... visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors." "Harmful to minors" is described as a picture or image that "appeals to a prurient interest in nudity, sex, or excretion (and) depicts, describes, or represents ... an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual acts, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals." Hooks Independent School District in Texas provides laptops to all of its fourth- through twelfth-graders. They filter certain web addresses using Websense, and use a proxy server to log the web habits of each student.
"We know where every child has gone and for how long they've been there," said Mychele Hughes, director of information services. "Students know they are going to be monitored - there's never a question of whether they will or will not be." The district also blocks instant messaging, chat rooms and MP3 downloads. "I just don't see what the big deal is," she said. "I don't think you can really be too safe with your children." Others think educators should make their own decisions. "COSN's policy position was that this was not needed," said Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking. "We believe in empowering local school leaders to make wise decisions on Internet safety."
The staff at the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas, have focused their energy on teaching Internet literacy. "We do not currently use any kinds of filtering or technology blocking system, which is kind of unusual," said Bob Moore, the executive director of Information Technology services. "In our opinion, a filtering system implies a guarantee. There is not a filtering system that is foolproof." Moore said that instead of blocking, the school teaches students to "know the territory you are in." Kids learn to find better search results using Boolean searches. The school also emphasizes responsible, ethical Internet use, he said. "There are so many people that don't know how to use the Internet that they focus on the dangers," Moore said. "Schools are often accused of not being in the real world, yet we have a federal law that's forcing us to prevent us from teaching real world skills as far as the Internet is concerned."
"We don't wait until a kid is an adult to teach him how to cross the street or to not talk to strangers," he added. Moore said that the strategy has worked well so far, and the school will continue to teach Internet literacy. The district will adhere to CIPA guidelines and is currently reviewing filtering systems. With or without filters, districts are clear that students will be punished if they are caught abusing their Internet privileges. "I'm very much a proponent of parental involvement," said Carol Bird, technology director of the Fort Huachuca Accommodation Schools in Sierra Vista, Arizona, which uses filtering. "Students know that we won't hesitate to get the parents involved if there is a problem." "We've had Internet access for three years and I've probably had to restrict two students," she said.
Often, peer pressure works in favor of district rules. In the Hooks ISD, students will have their laptop confiscated if they violate the "acceptable use policy," and they are unable to participate in class activities. Despite the fear that the Internet will harm children, Blue Valley's Moore said that there is an even more prevalent, and age-old, problem. "We have far more complaints about written materials like certain classics, novels, and plays than anything having to do with Internet resources."
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