"Filter the 'Net or else, schools, library toldNew federal mandates mean 'offensive' sites must be blocked."
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:51 PM
"Bainbridge schools and the public library must block out access to Internet sites deemed harmful to children, or lose funding.A federal law that took effect last month, the Children's Internet Protection Act, ties the discounted telecommunications rates schools and libraries receive to compliance. The law says that when minors are using the Internet on school or library computers, access to pornography, other obscene depictions or material generally considered harmful must be blocked.But library and school officials say they may find it difficult deciding just what constitutes harmful.There's a lot of vagueness in the law, said Randy Orwin, who manages information services for the Bainbridge Island School District.It's a problem. You're walking the line between First Amendment rights and keeping kids safe, he said. They leave a lot of the choices of just how to and what to filter up to the districts.Lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association have delayed the law's implementation, giving schools and libraries until fall 2002 to select filtering software and begin blocking access to material.Unless the law is struck down, they must develop a plan or lose E-Rate telecommunications discounts. The Bainbridge district would lose $50,000 in discounted rates.The mushrooming of the Internet, which provides easy access to adult content among its abundant information and resources, has proven problematic for educators.And Bainbridge school officials say there have been some problems with Internet use at local schools. At Bainbridge High School, several students were targets of name-calling and profanity in an online chatroom. At Sakai School, several students accessing inappropriate sites were banned from computer use. A Woodward student has also been caught accessing offensive material. According to school superintendent Stephen Rowley, the district may try to implement a filtering program earlier than mandated, for next school year.We'd like to have our program in place by the fall, Rowley said. Although we have yet to have the public hearing, we believe that most parents resonate positively with this.The district is leaning toward the adoption of a $5,000 software package called Cyber Patrol. The software contains no advertising and does not track the habits of Internet users. It blocks access to sites based on the recommendations of a nationwide panel of parents and teachers. The list of prohibited categories includes: violence/profanity; nudity; sexual acts; intolerance ; satanic cult material; drugs/drug culture; militants/extremists; questionable/illegal and gambling; and alcohol and tobacco.Sex education is placed in a unique category that allows unblocking for older age groups. No more self-policingUntil now, according to assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Curriculum Brent Peterson, the district has relied solely on educating students to be savvy Internet users.But with the increasing presence of sophisticated web sites constructed and linked to trap users where they had no intention of going in the first place, additional measures such as filtering may make sense, Peterson said.He noted that his personal qualms about filtering have been allayed by new software that gives local districts more freedom to customize their filtering.Balancing monitoring and controlling access with the need to protect free speech and free access is a debate that will continue, Peterson said. But in the short term, we've got to get on board - or not. The school board will likely see recommendations for district policy later this year. Rowley and Peterson said there would be an appeal process for parents or teachers who wish the status of a particular Internet site to be reviewed. It is very valid to look at filtering to manage students' surfing the Internet, Peterson said. I separate that conversation from the ones about the library, however.The Kitsap Regional Library board is is still studying the implications of the new law, according to Sarah Scribner head of reference and information services for KRL. The library already maintains filtering software on system servers Scribner she said, including those in the Bainbridge Library.All the terminals in the children's section of the library are filtered, as are some earmarked for adult use, she said. One problem Scribner finds with the law is that it would require library staff computers to be filtered as well. The American Library Association, comprised of librarians around the country, is critical of the law's vagueness, she said. We don't know how to comply, Scribner said. For instance, if a teen has a pregnant friends, and wants to get online to find services, we have to question that teen.The law puts us in the position of being a third party between the person and the information. "