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Weedsport’s Web Filters

A Look at Why They Exist and If They Can Be Changed

Ben Germinara, Staff Writer

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Note from the author: I am including myself in this story with the goal of helping the reader to understand how my discussion with the administration evolved, and also because I feel that it is important that I essentially acted as “the voice of the students” in our discussion. The inclusion of my thoughts in this piece will hopefully be understood in that context, but I want to emphasize that the most important information in this article is the discussion from the administrators about why the school’s web filtering exists, and also what students might be able to do to provide input to make the system better.

It doesn’t matter if you have just entered middle school or are currently thinking about graduation later this year, you have inevitably noticed the rapid advances in not only schooling, but technology as well. The classroom has become less a place of clear “One Size Fits All” schooling, with more branching, expansive curriculums being added as the years go on. This is not the only massive change within schools, which have had to adapt with the needs of everyone over the past decades. More and more we see classrooms moving towards online teaching methods. Even core classes like upper-level English have begun to almost completely abandon the bygone age of pen and paper, rocketing forth into a new dawn of online databases – like the very application I used to write this article, Google Drive.

With this push to the new age, the sudden reliance on systems once used only as supplements has suddenly revealed flaws and restrictions in a system designed maybe only 15 years ago. Despite these systems’ recent introduction in the school environment, with the pace of the modern world it might as well be a lifetime. What I am speaking of is an issue I have talked to other students with on a near daily basis, a frustration that appears universal to both teacher and student. A soft, but consistent, whisper of frustration permeates our class hours, calling out in bitterness over a seemingly frustrating and overprotective school web security tool.

Time after time, students complain of not being able to find anything of merit when using the school search engines, finding the majority of images and sites blocked, or not being able to access videos. Teachers talk of similar issues, frustrated over seemingly being able to access a video at one time, but at a later point being blocked from access.

Many students complain, but I see them rarely, if ever, going to the teacher to discuss the issue; usually blaming the teacher or simply believing that there’s no discussion to be had. Seeing this, I decided to interview the three people at Weedsport who would have the most to say on the matter: Mr. Roach, Mr. Fingland, and Mr. O’Connor. I had a few goals in mind for this interview. Number one, I hoped to get to the bottom of what appeared to be increasing restrictions, and to clear up the possible misconceptions of my classmates. My second purpose was to attempt to find out whether any of these concerns had been brought to their attention. And finally, if those concerns weren’t known, to see if there was any possibility of change.

The beginning of my interview with the administrators focused primarily on the application and laws in place that guide their decisions. All applications are designed around federal guidelines known under the name of the Child Information Protection Act, or CIPA for short. CIPA law is and was put in place, as Mr. Roach said, to protect minors from accessing pornographic or other obscene content. However, one unclear piece of this law is which sites fall into the definition of being “harmful to minors,” and this particular requirement is more left in the eye of the beholder. For example, online games or sites like YouTube can be put under this category as they distract students or waste their time, therefore, harming students. The problem is this broad definition is unclear and can be susceptible to criticism. One example of such criticism is from Katherine A. Miltner, University of Indiana School of Law. She questions whether these laws are outdated in the era of new technology and even a restriction of constitutional freedoms under the guise of protecting minors.

These criticisms are no fault of the school of course, but it is important to note the criticisms when considering that they have to follow the guidelines, lest they lose discounts on essential equipment offered by E-Rate programs, and depending on severity, even risking federal and civil lawsuits. Due to these regulations, all state-funded schools must have a machine, called affectionately by the name “Lightspeed,” which works in conjunction with Google Safesearch and an agent installed on every school computer that uses a categorical system to moderate computer access. It essentially has several unchangeable prebuilt categories that are blocked, such as Mr. Roach’s primary example of pornography, but there are dozens more of these categories. While some involve obscene content, such as gore and other inappropriate materials under this list of unchangeable restrictions, some are left open to interpretation of the school district. To show you an example of how this categorial system can explain the frustrating blockages many students encounter, let’s take the example I brought up to the administrators of the word “hamster,” a relatively innocent topic that has almost every link and picture affiliated with the word blocked. Mr. Roach responded by stating,“Well, we also have Google SafeSearch enabled, and that is designed along CIPA lines to block what it views as questionable content, but unfortunately at that point you’re simply at the mercy of the system.”

Mr. Fingland provided a more specific reason, going further by stating that the term “hamster” is used in the name of a pornographic website. I followed up by pointing out that there are a number of terms you could search that would lead you to a pornographic site, as it’s unfortunately one of the most expansive mediums on the internet. This may seem minor, but this could explain a variety of frustrating, seemingly illogical restrictions to searches. Quite often sites of pornagraphic or obscene content can take on an expansive variety of names that in a normal setting are completely harmless. However, if the system is told that one of these sites exist, it quite often cannot distinguish between what is indeed harmful, so it instead just simply blocks off all possibly affiliated content.

When Mr. Roach was asked further on why restrictions had gotten more severe over the past few years, he stated that to his knowledge no drastic change has occurred during his time at Weedsport. He did, however, comment that, ”It’s not a perfect system. It’s the system all BOCES and school systems are using. I will say that I know that there have been upgrades to these systems over the past two years to help keep students on task, and I’m assuming you know about proxies? Several of these upgrades are intended to block these proxies. If a proxy is detected it will automatically lock out that user.”

That quote segways well into the next important point to discuss, which is discussing the issues that teachers have been encountering. Mr. Roach explained that student and teacher accounts are categorized by the system under strict guidelines. Student accounts are not individually alterable. Instead, under the Lightspeed system, rules for student accounts are all the same, and giving access to a site for one student would in turn give access to the entire school population. When asked specifically about students not being able to access videos with Buzz for their online courses, he explained further by stating, “There are workarounds, but I can’t simply open YouTube to you specifically without giving access to all students, and I think we can both agree that would not be a really good idea. Another component of that is that teachers can use an application called Ensemble where they can convert the video and distribute the link to students through Buzz or any other means.”

How does this connect to teacher’s difficulties with accessing information through the system? Well, much in the same way as the “hamster” example from above, if the system does not initially recognize a teacher’s account, it takes a similar “better safe than sorry” approach and immediately sets the teacher under the restrictions of a “guest account.” According to Mr. Roach, all a teacher has to do is simply restart their computer in a attempt to reset the system.

Mr. Roach continued on to discuss the final discussion of this topic, his role in moderating the system. “Most of what we block is based off NAP, as required based off federal law. The other things we block, like gaming sites, are classroom management point of view and keeping students on task… there are kids that would spend all day on game sites rather than be doing homework.” He continued to discuss this topic by stating that, “There are some young students who simply can’t stay on task.” To put it more simply, a lot of these restrictions are put in place by request of teachers who teach younger students, and thus affect the higher grades due to the categorial way the account restrictions are set up.

The primary question I came to ask still waits to be answered; is there room enough for the student’s word to make any kind of change? Well I think this question can be answered by one simple statement made by Mr. O’Connor at the end of the interview, stating, “Ben, I believe you are in a position of empowerment. If you are going to write this article, you could attempt to encourage students to talk directly to their teachers so that it travels up the food chain to people such as Mr. Fingland and I.” All three men acknowledged that there are faults within the system, and agreed with my statement that, “Managing a school is more politics than education.”

Mr. O’Connor discussed the fact that administrators often have to do more than think about education when he stated, “Welcome to our world Ben, where we have to attempt to work around and please everyone. We are considered to be gatekeepers, and are expected to protect our students while also providing their education.” Mr. Fingland added, “We are told to follow the saying ‘in loco parentis’ (in the place of a parent). When you’re in school, we are responsible for you and are held to the same standard as parents when you’re in your home.”

Change would not be easy, as these policies and programs stem far beyond the capabilities of one school to change. What is important is that it appears, at least in the case of our administrators, they are willing to listen and work with the student body if we attempt to send our word up. We must try to begin a conversation, which if successful, could help to push along some frankly outdated systems to the modern age through this larger discussion.

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