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Schools tepid on more Net filtering

Student access to Internet sites with “militant/extremist” content should be prevented, the Bainbridge School Board decided last week.

But access to sites that deal with drugs and cults is still okay, after the board voted to “filter” just one of eight categories recommended by a parental advisory group.

In making its decision, the board sided with Superintendent Steve Rowley against the advisory group’s recommendations for broader filtering.

“The other sites didn’t present the same potential for personal harm as the militant/extremist (sites), where bomb-making information might be available,” Rowley said. “We might find other categories repugnant, but they are not ones that would do great harm.

“We should establish filters only where we have problems, or where there is a safety issue. ”

The board split in the decision, with only member Ken Breiland supporting blocking additional websites.

“I believe that the Bainbridge community would want a high level of filtering,” Breiland said, “a more restrictive filtering than we voted here tonight.”

The school district implemented “Cyber Patrol” filtering software for a three-month trial period this past fall, in response to the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act.

That legislation requires schools and libraries to filter students’ access or lose some federal funding.

The Cyber Patrol software evaluates and categorizes the content of various online sites. In its first implementation, the district chose block student access to four of 12 categories – including “Partial Nudity,” “Full Nudity,” “Sexual Acts,” “Gross Depictions” – identified as potentially objectionable.

District information systems manager Randy Orwin, who presented parents’ recommendations to the school board at its Dec. 13 meeting, noted that the advisory group was unanimous in wanting to filter every category Cyber Patrol listed.

Orwin cited the group’s expressed opinion that filtering is the norm, since corporate America blocks sites from employees.

Breiland asked why, if all the parents on the committee evaluating the software wanted all the sites filtered, the district was not implementing their wishes.

Replied Rowley, “It (wholesale filtering) does have a pre-emptive, Big Brother-ishness to it.”

Other board members pointed out that the parent group was too small to be truly representative, and reiterated Rowley’s cautionary note.

“If we were asked by parents ‘Do we want kids to join a Satanic cult?’ of course we would say ‘no,’” board member Bruce Weiland said. “But the question we have to address, as a representative body is: What is the risk of wholesale blocking?

“I start from the point of view of wanting as much freedom of information as possible,” he said. “Let’s not assume limitations. Let’s work toward them. There is an intangible cost whenever we limit our kids’ information.”

Orwin said the software appears to be working well, provoking little criticism from staff. It also tracks attempts to access blocked sites.

The district recorded 2,108 thwarted “hits” in two test weeks in November, and number of hits increased with the age of the students.

Orwin said that the hits from the district office were “just to test the system.”

The board unanimously passed a second recommendation to have students “log on” to the district computer system with an identifying password in order to access the Internet.

Deputy Superintendent Ken Crawford said the move would make students accountable for their choices online.

“The district will be able to tell whether the hits are five kids trying 15 times a day – or 75 kids trying once,” board member Susan Sivitz agreed.

Some said the log-on requirement would help the district offer help to a kid whose choice of Internet sites reflects problem behavior, such as an “addiction” to gambling sites.

Crawford noted, however, that there isn’t enough staff and time to do intensive monitoring.

Orwin noted that the log-on feature will add flexibility to filtering, allowing the district to tailor access to different student populations – blocking elementary students from sex education sites, for example, while allowing secondary students access the same site.

Where early software filtering depended on identification of key words in a text without noting context – a method that could block access to an Ernest Hemingway story that contained profanity, for example – Cyber Patrol hires employees to evaluate each site.

Orwin said that as the technology matures, site evaluation will become more sophisticated.

For example, the next version of Cyber Patrol has expanded the number of categories that can be filtered to 42.

The school board will continue to review categories for filtering.

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