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BELLTONES: Back on My Bandbox--Internet Filtering and Diversity

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Jan 1, 2016
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One of my main bandbox issues over my years of working with school libraries and technology has been internet filtering. I was lucky enough to work in a very forward-thinking school district in the short time between our going online and the passing of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). During those golden days, we had no filter. Our philosophy was, “The best filter is an informed and watchful adult looking over the shoulders of students using the internet.”

Ah, those were simple times. There were only two to three computers in a classroom, six to eight computers in my library, and no such thing as handheld devices. This was in the middle and late ’90s. Our system worked pretty well back then. Even when we started filtering, our technology director saw to it that we were able to get what we needed. Librarians had a bypass to the filter and could still help students when something appropriate was blocked. We did not take for granted the freedom and respect we were extended. I always knew it was rare.

Once I started working at the university level teaching M.L.S. students, I started to hear stories of how hard it was to do the simplest of searches, with filters locked down tightly and no override ability on campuses, even for administrators. That’s when I constructed my bandbox and began shouting about the problem. I have conducted surveys over the years that yielded dismal results about accessibility to information and web-based tools in many schools and districts. While CIPA was meant specifically to keep children safe from obscene and harmful images, people began adding all kinds of additional restrictions and misquoting the law in order to block sites that, for one reason or another, were deemed undesirable for students and/or teachers to access.

The last time I surveyed was in 2014. While there were improvements over previous years, there was still far too much filtering. Since then, I have started wondering whether we have lost ground. Due to the current atmosphere in our country, with so many people afraid and angry about racial and religious differences and people’s lifestyles, I began to wonder how American schools are handling filtering with regard to diversity, especially relating to race, religion, and GLBT issues. Time for another survey? Yes!

The questions that were uppermost in my mind at this point were the following:

* Can students learn about world religions using the Internet at school? Are they able to look up information about the Muslim faith in particular, as well as about other faiths?

* Are racism and discrimination on the basis of religion present in filtering? Again, I wondered about Muslims first, but also thought about other groups. Surely, despite the controversies regarding immigration, students can still have unfettered access to Hispanic sites and sites using Spanish or other languages?

* What about GLBT topics? A quick preliminary search revealed that information for or about gays and lesbians, and especially transsexuals, has been filtered in the past. While gays and lesbians can legally marry in all states, I wondered if they can read about this or any other aspect of GLBT topics when they are at school.


THE SURVEY

Following my usual modus operandi, I constructed a survey using SurveyMonkey and shared it via listservs (LM_NET and TLC), our student message board, Facebook, and Twitter. Even though this survey required a greater time commitment than others because respondents needed to try various searches, I still had 90 responses. As always, I learned a lot. There definitely are issues hampering access to topics that are vital parts of many students’ lives. And because poor students have less off-campus access than do their classmates, again the greatest loss is visited upon those from low-income families. Just knowing this is one reason why the tight filters are unfair and detrimental.I want to stress that this was an informal survey. Readers seeking more scholarly data can refer to recent work by the American Library Association (ALA) and also the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). As is usually the case when I put out a survey of this type, the comments are as valuable as, or possibly more valuable than, the numbers. The survey I conducted, complete with comments, is available for free at this location: surveymonkey.com/results/SM-VX3VPRLJ.

THE CONTEXT

I am writing this at the height of the unrest following the November ISIS attacks in Paris. If I hadn’t already been worried about children of Muslim families, this crisis would have raised my concern. I live in Texas, and the exclusionary voices here are raising quite a din. It is painful to see my fellow Americans so filled with hate and fear about people holding religious beliefs different from their own. At the same time, and often from the same people, I hear outrage about marriage equality and especially about accepting transgender people. Finally, the racism that has always been an ugly part of our society ramped up in the past 8 years reached new levels this summer after the incidents in St. Louis and on university campuses. I feel a great concern for youngsters who fall into one or more of these groups and have to go to school every day knowing they are apt to be in an unwelcoming environment where they cannot even find information about their situations or about others like themselves. These concerns led me to write this article.

THE RESPONDENTS

I started out with basic demographic questions about the respondents. Most were librarians, although I also reached classroom teachers and technology faculty members. Most were from Texas, which is not surprising since I live and work in this state. But I also heard from people from 17 other states and from Germany and Kenya. The responses from elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools were evenly distributed. Over half the respondents said they were satisfied with internet access at their schools. While this is a far cry from the dismal numbers I received for that question in the past, it still means nearly half of those responding are not satisfied. I am not going to try to parse out the responses to each question in the survey, since it is open for you to view. Instead, I am going to make some generalizations based on the responses and also share what is frequently for me the best part of any survey: the comments. As with the numbers and graphs, you can read all comments at the survey site, and, as always, I find them fascinating. It goes without saying, but educators are verbal and articulate, especially when discussing concerns.


THE QUESTIONS

My questions centered on whether reasonable access was accorded three main categories: religion, race, and sexuality. I tried to come at each from several angles, asking if word-by-word filtering was stopping searches, then if certain topics seemed to be blocked, and then if conducting research was difficult because students could search but would find sites blocked. I also mentioned a couple of specific sites per category to see if they were blocked.

One thing I need to make clear from the outset is that many people skipped questions. I had stated in my introduction that responses were welcome and I was OK with leaving some questions unanswered. My suspicion was that one factor would be a worry that, by searching, they would compromise their own situations if someone noticed they searched for something “inappropriate.” As one person said when I asked if searching by certain topics was blocked, “Not sure and do not want to try.” This is significant to me for two reasons. First it shows that in some schools people are afraid to bring attention to themselves by even trying to seek information on some topics. Second, it did adversely affect the number of responses I got on questions that were specific to topics or sites that might be deemed problematic. This means I cannot say a certain percentage of respondents failed to reach a certain site because many participants skipped that question. I still found the information gathered to be useful, because it does indicate that there is filtering going on that inhibits access to words, topics, and sites that youngsters coming from minorities as to religion, race, or sexual identity might rightfully need to reach. 

PARSING THE RESULTS

Regarding race, I found less blocking than I found for the other two topics. None of the searches I asked about was reported problematic by more than four respondents. There was some blocking (three to four instances) of black lives matter , Black pride , La Raza , and the word racism itself. By and large, it seems that users can learn about people of the world regardless of race in a majority of schools. Next, I turned my attention to religions. Buddhism , Scientology , alternative religions , Wicca , ISUL/ISIS , and jihad had several blocks each. I founded it a bit odd that Islam was only blocked two times as opposed to the others at four. In any case, blocking either race or religion in schools is counterproductive. Keeping information away from students seems wrongheaded.

Finally, I turned to the all-American hang-up : sex and sexuality. Even with the threat of ISIS and the obvious racism exhibited daily in our world, by far, the biggest bugaboo for most adults seems to be sex. Having been young themselves, it flummoxes me how adults think that keeping information away from kids will keep them innocent, with their hormones kicking in and the societal pressures to sexualize youngsters coming from all sides. Despite a plethora of scientific proof that people do not become gay or transgender due to proselytizing, the worst fear folks seem to have is that their children will learn about these two topics.

The old notion of keeping kids in the dark about safe sex and/or sexually transmitted diseases still seems to hold sway in many districts. Words, sites, or topics offering such information were two or three times more likely to be off-limits than sites about racial or religious issues. Youngsters begin to form their sexual identities during their school years. I know this from my own experience with my daughter, who is a lesbian. To keep factual information from them seems so damaging. As for sites offering reassurance, those are the ones blocked most of all. How hard it must be for boys and girls who are trying to navigate adolescence to have the additional burden of their identities being deemed harmful and wrong.

Looking back at the information I gathered, I certainly found evidence that internet filtering was keeping students from information that could be beneficial to them. As one respondent said, “Some topics are ‘flagged’ if visited frequently by individual students. Any topic the district thinks is ‘harmful’ to students is tracked.” Another participant described her available content as being “pro-Christian, anti anything problematic.” The numbers are not as large as I feared, and that can be interpreted as a positive thing. At the same time, though, respondents let me know that they skipped items rather than trying searches that might be traced back to them and used against them. This indicates a mutual distrust in many districts that is troubling. Thus, I do not have highly dramatic numerical data to back up my suspicions, but I do have enough to indicate that the problem exists. And who suffers most from this lack of access? That would be students who are from the lower economic classes. While their more affluent classmates can go home and gain access to sites blocked at schools, these kids do not have that option.


NOW HEAR THIS

So here I go climbing up on my battered bandbox again. I think as caring teachers and librarians, we must do everything to help those kids who are considered “other” by their peers, whether it is due to race, religion, sexuality, or a combination of these. They deserve information and, maybe even more, they deserve hope. Gay and transgender kids and those seeking their identities desperately need to be able to visit the sites out there that are specifically for them. Here are some of the most blocked sites related to sexuality:

* It Gets Better Project, which is designed to reach out to kids and promise them that even if their teen years are tough, better days will indeed come. It provides accounts from young adults who have been through the same thing. It was blocked at least three times.

* I’m From Driftwood, which was put up by a young man who grew up in the small and very conservative town of Driftwood, Texas, and who wants to share similar stories to those at the It Gets Better Project site. It was blocked at least eight times.

* Any sites about being transgender or transsexual. They were blocked 10 and 13 times, respectively.

* Family Pride Coalition was blocked six times.

* PFLAG, the widely accepted national organization for parents and families of lesbians and gays and now transgender individuals. I have to add that this group helped me a great deal back when my daughter was first coming out, so it is personal for me. It was blocked six times.

* And let’s not forget straight kids who are dealing with scary scenarios regarding sex and its consequences. Planned Parenthood was blocked at least five times, and the most blocked topic of all reviewed, sexually transmitted diseases, was blocked 14 times. How can we want to deny access to kids about this kind of information?

SOME POSITIVES

Before I close, I do want to say that there were many positive comments about internet access at schools. Things do appear to be better regarding filtering than they were a few years ago. I asked for comments from people who had been able to work for positive change and got remarks such as the following:

* “Hire great tech people! No kidding, they are the driving force in having more access. They were all educators before becoming techies.”

* “I went to the principal and showed him research and the sites that I wanted to use. Then, I went to the Technology Director with the same information plus more. Next, I went to the Superintendent with my new information plus more. Finally, I presented to the school board. They heard me, but no one listened. I left the school district and taught nearby for three years. Then, the former school district called me and asked me to come back. I agreed with some stipulations, and one of those stipulations was that I was on the hiring committee for the new Technology Director. I have realized that many administrators do not understand Tech Talk and really do not know who is qualified or not qualified. Praise the Lord that I had the opportunity to interpret the Tech Talk, and the committee made an informed decision that has set our district on a path of growth based on research based instruction and meeting the needs of the 21st century learner.”

* “I continuously advocate for unrestricted access. I had to be very persistent to get the code to override the filter. Apparently the principal doesn’t have it. My argument is that no one in the district is more qualified to evaluate a website than a certified librarian. It is an ongoing battle but I must admit that my district has worked with me.”

Efforts such as the ones described above do result in positive change, and the fact that we can see progress is due to the tenacity and persistence of people speaking out for reasonable access.

When I was considering writing about filtering and diversity, I looked for other research about these topics. “Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Education,” a study published in 2013 by the ACLU, reported the types of filtering that I have explored in this article and gave me impetus to continue. Further proof that the issue is one many school and district personnel need to address was documented in the ALA study, “Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later.” My desire is to shine a spotlight on the problems with overfiltering once again as 2016 arrives and this time as it relates to diversity. My message is for educators dealing with excessive filtering but also for everyone else. Students and educators need and deserve access to any sites not specifically restricted by CIPA as containing images that are obscene or that are harmful to students. In today’s climate with increasing polarization and antagonism centered on the topics of race, religion, and gender issues, we need to stand firm against any encroachment of filters as part of the backlash happening due to recent events.

 

Contact Mary Ann at lis_mah@shsu.edu.

 

RECOMMENDED SITES:

ACLU (2013) “Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Education” (bit.ly/1C73Vi9)

Batch, K.R. (2014) “Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later” (bit.ly/1OG2CMg)


 
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