We all recognize that notorious “Blocked by Websense” page jeering, “Katy ISD’s Internet use policy restricts access to this web page at this time.” But where are the limits for this policy? KatyISD’s website boasts that its internet filtering blocks “more than 25,000 inappropriate websites each day.” Of course this is a bona-fide effort to protect younger minds that are not yet mature enough to handle certain material that the internet access policy denies access to; however, not every mind that this affects needs such strict protection.
Katy ISD uses the Websense software to filter internet access by 88 categories of web content, each updating daily, to include over 20 million URLs. Websense grants monitoring and policy management in addition to filtering of obscenities, search engine images, and security threats. District administration has frequently customized its filtering policy by adding and removing URLs from its block list.
This intensive effort is not unwarranted; the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), implemented in late 2000, requires schools and libraries to provide “protection… against access through such computers to visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors” in order to receive certain federal funds and discounts. KatyISD installed an internet filter immediately after the implementation of CIPA, and Websense has continued the job for the past three years. Though the district spent roughly $77,000 last year on Websense alone, government discounts compensate for this cost plus more to spread over other technology investments. Whereas this is the reasoning behind the idea of a comprehensive filtering system, and why schools are required by law to have such filters for funding, it filters far beyond its primary function of protection from malicious websites.
Whereas filters are designed and intended to protect minors from obscene material, it often confuses itself when a certain keyword is taken out of context and mislabeled as inappropriate. For example, searching Google with the keywords “school internet filter” results in, among several hundred thousand others, both an article from Wikihow (a Wikipedia-style how-to site) titled “How to get around school internet filtering” and the home page for Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a research program to explore and study the internet. Which site is blocked for “proxy avoidance?” Ironically, that would be the latter. While these system hiccups are typical for filtering programs and typically cannot be avoided without directly removing the URL from the block list, the policy scrapes further into the internet.
As most students who access the internet at school know, the district blocks Wikipedia. English teachers are the main opponents of Wikipedia for its inclination to include iffy if not completely incorrect information that students take as fact. However, sites like this are not necessarily worthy of a blatant block from student access. If a teacher declares a website like Wikipedia to be an unacceptable source for information, then it is the responsibility of the student thereafter to not use its content. Regardless of school internet policies, students may still access the illicit information from a library or personal computer regardless of what district administrators block. The district’s limit should be at preventing the exposure of obscene materials and protecting school hardware rather than filtering what administrators consider an “unapproved resource.”
THS English teachers are polarized by this issue. English III teacher Mrs. Palmer says, “While trying to save the students from citing faulty research is an understandable goal, it is unrealistic to think the information can be blocked completely. I think we better serve students by teaching them what makes a source credible than blocking resources that are not credible. We should then require students to not only determine credible sources but only cite those in their research.”
Conversely, English I/II teacher Ms. Dickey says, “The primary reason is that anyone, including my five year old nephew, can write or edit a Wikipedia article regardless of his or her qualifications to do so. So, to prevent some poor student from going to the trouble of writing a paper – then receiving a failing grade on the paper due to an inaccurate source – Wikipedia should be blocked and teachers should make a point to inform their students about Wikipedia.”
Perhaps the current internet access policy is the bane of in-school research, and there’s nothing that may be done with the filter as it performs its sole duty of filtering. Whereas the filter itself may not present many options, its application could be refitted to a more dynamic method of filtering. Currently, the filter affects every KISD school the same – Wikipedia is blocked for every student of every grade – but since students mature throughout grade-school, why can’t what we’re allowed to access while researching on the computer gradually broaden accordingly. Whereas parents may object to allowing third-graders to access information on abortion, a high school senior may require this information for a thesis. Allowing a grade-specific filter would enable students in higher grades to access more information, since they are more likely to require more advanced, mature material.
Lenny Schad, Chief Information Officer for KISD, believes that, “Administration for this type of set up makes it not feasible. The fact that we can add or delete websites from the filtering process affords KISD as much flexibility as necessary.” However, if all teachers’ computer accounts are exempt from some filtering, students’ accounts should in some way benefit from similar a policy.
Katy ISD reviews its internet policy every year, and the overall policy has not changed. The district is only required to filter out websites that are inappropriate for students and that can physically harm school technology. Individual teachers must decide what is and is not acceptable research material, and what they may deem unacceptable is something a student is responsible for considering.