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BELLTONES: Do You Want Kids to Be Safe Online? LOOSEN Those Filters!

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Jan 1, 2009
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I am on a mission to spread the word that Draconian filtering at schools is a practice that produces negative outcomes. The time to speak out about such constraints is now! As I write this, on a warm sunny day in September 2008, I am conscious of the fact that this column will be published in January 2009. Thus I am challenging readers to make a New Year’s resolution to work for gaining more internet access for students and faculty members in K–12 schools.

This has long been a mantra with me, and I believe that, as time goes by, the stated reasons for such filtering become harder to justify. Let me hasten to say that I am not campaigning for frivolous surfing at the expense of bandwidth that should be used for educational purposes. I am talking about the kind of filtering, often banning any use of words deemed objectionable, that keeps kids and teachers out of so many great educational resources.

My first article in this series about filtering appeared in the September 2008 issue of MMIS, and a second followed in November 2008. By way of recap, to this point I have offered a general description of the situation, followed by what I think is the most compelling argument to use with administrators when requesting more access: that other districts are moving far ahead and doing well with access that allows entree into Web 2.0 resources.

In this column I will offer a second strong reason to take another look at very tight filters: that allowing additional access helps us make kids more, rather than less, safe. I am painfully aware that many educators wish they could do more online instruction and activities with kids, but they fear jeopardizing their jobs by "making waves." So I am joining my friend Nancy Willard, a noted cyber-safety and filtering expert, in speaking out in the hopes that I can in some way provide weight to the argument.

More … Not Less … Safe

Why do I assert that students are more rather than less safe with increased internet access at school? To many that may sound counterintuitive! Here are some reasons for saying this that I find compelling:

• ‑If we have access, we can teach kids about good and bad sites. Some of my students report that in their schools, students are not allowed to search the internet at all. Instead, they are only allowed to use sites from preapproved lists. To get a site on such a list, a teacher or librarian must make a request, which is then relayed to a technology liaison or school/district administrator. Then, the requestor must wait for the request to be reviewed and (hopefully) granted. It is not hard to imagine that by that time, the need for the site has long since passed. In other instances, teachers and students may search online, but far too often the sites they want to view are blocked. Even if the unblocking process is very fast, students are not being taught how to be safe and smart searchers. They are receiving no instruction about how to size up a site to determine if it is authoritative, unbiased, and appropriate for their use. Then, when they go home, to the public library, or elsewhere on their own time, they are babes in the woods regarding website evaluation. Sadly, their teachers may also be uninformed and are just relying on the filters and lists, since that is their only avenue to internet use. Other teachers simply give up altogether. Kids in these schools are not being well-served.

• ‑Filters both underblock and overblock. We know from numerous studies and evaluations of various filtering applications that they are far from 100% effective. Students easily circumvent filters by searching with terms in languages other than English and by other inventive tactics. And, of course, the internet abounds with sites that teach students how to skirt filters completely. As far as underblocking is concerned, even with filters, inappropriate sites certainly slip through. Furthermore, no filters guard against information that lacks authority or is inappropriate for student use regarding age. Thus we may find, as I have personally experienced, ridiculous situations such as eighth graders quoting information from sites posted by third graders.

• ‑Filters create a false sense of security. Teachers often operate with a faulty notion that their students need minimal supervision when using the internet, since the filters are in place. Unless teachers are safe and smart internet users themselves and are also committed to supervising students using the internet, problems are sure to arise. No teacher or librarian should allow students carte blanche to "surf" without close monitoring. At the least the youngsters are apt to waste time and wander off-task. At the worst they are exploiting the filters’ weaknesses and accessing the sites that are supposedly blocked.

• ‑Campuses without override rights cannot even check on known threats. This is, to me, the height of irresponsibility regarding internet access on school campuses. Far too often not even the principal is allowed to override the filter and view a site about which he/she has concern. Last spring at the Texas Library Association Conference, internet safety guru Nancy Willard posed this question: What if a child comes to the school counselor or administrator and says that there is some scary and inappropriate content online about her or about goings-on at that school? Far too often that concerned educator cannot even visit the site to see what the student is worried about. Someone in the audience spoke up and said that this very thing had happened at her school. In order to take a look at the threatening site, a MySpace page, she had to get in her car, drive home, and view the site there. Then, she printed it out, returned to school, and reported it. Sure enough, there was a fight brewing, and they were able to stop it. In another instance, shared with me by an M.L.S. student, some high school students at her school had made a fake social networking site about the school assistant principal, who knew nothing of its existence. Again, someone had to go to great length to view the site and then take action. How can this type of restrictive overkill be said to help keep kids safe?

So what should be done to bring some common sense to the table? The first thing I strongly advocate is filtering override rights for campus personnel. On any given campus, there should be several people who can immediately use a password to override a filter. People who should be trusted with this right include the principal (of course), assistant principals, the counselor, the campus technology personnel, and the librarian. This is minimal. Surely teachers who have received training and who are active and informed internet searchers should be trusted as well. To deny campus professionals this access is parental, insulting, and, frankly, dangerous. This is the first and most basic right that I think all educators should seek immediately. Here are some other situations that might be used to exemplify this need for override.

• ‑Suppose Suzy Student goes to the counselor and says, "I am worried about my friend Freda Frantic. She has posted a letter to her website offering to give away her belongings and predicting that she will be gone after next Friday. She is hinting that she is thinking about suicide." Shouldn’t that counselor be able, after hopefully thanking and calming Suzy, to go to that MySpace page and take a look?

• ‑Suppose Rhonda Researcher, an eighth grader, tells her librarian, "I found this weird site about Martin Luther King on the internet. It says we should outlaw MLK’s birthday as a holiday." Shouldn’t the librarian be able to look at that page and show Rhonda why it is a hate site and not one to trust? The site in question, "The Truth About Martin Luther King," appears very high on search results, particularly with Google, and heavily encourages kids to share it with their friends. Does it really make sense for educators to be forbidden to use this site as a teachable moment about biased and hate-filled sites? Are we keeping kids safe by not teaching them and sending them home to view the site without any guidance?

• ‑Suppose that an assistant principal, coach, or teacher hears kids laughing about a website that makes fun of him. Putting up fake sites in the name of teachers and administrators is a very popular pastime among middle school and high school students. Shouldn’t that adult have the right to go to that site from school to see what is there? How are his best interests and those of the school and district served by his being blocked?

Second, schools and districts need to review and update their Acceptable Use Policies and their district policies and attitudes about filters. What seemed appropriate and desirable several years ago has less and less relevance in view of increasingly internet-savvy students and the proliferation of important and valuable Web 2.0 resources for educators.

Finally, educators must be trained to be safe and smart internet users themselves, and they must have the right to use this knowledge to benefit their instruction and the edification of their students. Further, they must be warned that they must not allow students to search the internet without their constant and vigilant presence. The best filter is the watchful adult, whether it be in the classroom, in the library, in the lab, or at home. The practice of using the filters as an excuse for teachers not to learn about the internet is no longer acceptable. The time for change is now, and not just so everyone can use nifty resources. It is important for keeping our students safe and smart in the digital world.

Mary Ann Bell, B.A., M.L.S., Ed.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Library Science, Sam Houston State University, where she teaches classes related to technology and librarianship. She is the author of Internet and Personal Computer Fads, Haworth Press, 2004, and Cybersins and Digital Good Deeds: A Book About Technology and Ethics, Haworth Press, 2006. She has also written for numerous journal publications and made conference presentations on the topics of information ethics and creative teaching with technology.She is active in the Texas Library Association, American Library Association, Texas ­Computer Education Association, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, and Delta Kappa Gamma. She can be reached by email at

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