For senior Taylor Runion, this disheartening white screen has been a constant through her school years. In elementary school, it was addictinggames.com. Then in middle school, myspace.com and youtube.com. Now, grooveshark.com and deviantart.com. The white screen declaring a site inappropriate for school has followed students from the days of Lunchables to open lunch.
From Runion’s point of view, it seems that though her usage of blocked sites has become more educationally motivated, things have not changed in SMSD’s never-ending battle against websites deemed to be inappropriate. These range from pornography and DIY-bomb sites to sites pertaining to sexual health and teacher rating sites like ratemyteacher.com. However, as the list of inappropriate sites grows longer, SMSD’s Information and Technology department has dealt with the likewise-growing number of issues with students trying to get through filters, as well as the ever-changing world of technology.
According to Principal Karl Krawitz, East alone has experienced an uptick in the number of students called into administration either for trying to access forbidden sites or downloading programs such as Halo or Google Chrome. In a survey of 200 students, 51 percent of students had succeeded in getting around the district’s firewalls, and only 34 percent feel that the filters are needed.
“Kids have gotten very good about knowing how to get around filters,” Dr. Krawitz said. “And that’s been on the increase because you can find a way to get around it just by Googling it.”
The effort that students put into getting around the filters varies based upon their attitude towards the blocks and the resources available to them. Often, the key issue for students is a feeling that the blocks are set up for illegitimate reasons. With some sites like Reddit that offer a powerful forum for discussion within the social media, simplifying the system of blocking takes precedence over providing information for students. According to East Network Analyst Richard Allan, it’s easier to block the entire site instead of than to take the time and the risk of going through to pick out the inappropriate sub-sites.
When Grooveshark, a free music site similar to Pandora, was blocked last year, the change was met with dismay from students who used the site to listen to music during study time or in art classes.
“I don’t think the filters are necessary, because the only things they’ve filtered out for me have been Grooveshark or times when I’ve been looking for a picture for an art project,” Runion said. “What they do block seems excessive, in my opinion, but I can get around them using an ‘s’ in the address.”
By searching around the Internet, students can find proxies such as sockstunnel.org that reroute requests through the proxy so that the district’s filters can’t pick up on the bad request. Some will even set up “tunnels” that route the entire connection through another server. At this point, though, it isn’t just a simple desire to check Twitter during school hours. Students such as former East student Kevin Blouthe* view the filters as an imposition and a challenge; the mere presence of the filters motivated Blouthe to find a way through them using SSH tunneling– a far more advanced and time-consuming route than proxies.
“I just wanted to see if I could set up my own server,” Blouthe said. “But it was just for fun, since I could get Facebook and Twitter on my phone without the server. My freshman year, it was a huge deal to get on Facebook because there was no other way. People didn’t have smartphones, really.”
The use of smartphones has illustrated an flaw in the district’s system of filtering. The requirements and guidelines of the district have turned into an issue of liability for SMSD. This liability downplays the important role smartphones play, as the phones aren’t directly under the district’s responsibility.
“Even though students can just get social networking sites on their phones for the most part, I feel like the blocks are a liability thing,” Bouthe said. “If the school’s letting you connect, it’s like they’re endorsing you wasting time and going on random websites.”
According to Blouthe and Allan, the district’s underlying knowledge that kids will goof off is overshadowed and covered up by old guidelines and Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requirements. CIPA defines what is safe for children to access by primarily filtering out obscene or pornographic content.
Yet according to Leigh Anne Neal, Director of Communications and Public Information in SMSD, CIPA does not simply provide basic guidelines for Internet filtering, but rewards those public institutions with technology grants that comply. In other words, kids will goof off no matter what, but the school can’t encourage it just because of policy issues.
“I feel like [the firewalls] are well-intentioned but kind of inneffective,” senior Henry Falk said. “It’s probably just a necessity to keep kids safe from Kindergarten on up, but the system really needs to be updated.”
The lack of concern for smartphones because of the absence of their status as a liability has created a way for students to consistently get around firewalls, according to students such as Falk and Runion. For those phones with Internet access, the filters that SMSD imposes on its server no longer applies to them. This rise of smartphones – whether they be iPhones, Androids or Blackberries– has deeply changed the game of cat-and-mouse that plays out between students, websites and the district.
“I think absolutely smartphones have changed everything, especially now that the rules have kind of relaxed with cell phone usage,” Allan said. “I think everyone knows how to get around it when they need to get around it, and that’s usually with their iPhone or what-have-you.”
With the use of smartphones as an entirely different gateway to the Internet and the ever-growing and changing nature of the Internet itself, the task of keeping kids away from sites they are used to going on at home continues to rise in both complexity and workload, explained Dr. Krawitz.
According to him, the ability for the school district to keep up with the number of inappropriate websites themselves and the proxy websites used to get to them is growing thin. As compensation, the number of sites is more finely filtered than ever before in an attempt fully comply to the guidelines laid down by CIPA (guidelines that deal with blatant obscenity and pornography) and the district, according to Dr. Krawitz. This, in part, has contributed to the increase in students being written up by East administration either for being on inappropriate sites during school or for downloading applications off of the Internet.
“I don’t think the school district has the capacity to stay up with the multitude of ways that one can manipulate around the system, and I would imagine that they’re challenged by that every day,” Dr. Krawitz said. “Which makes it even more the reason why they try to filter as finely as they can to catch anything that might be offensive.”
Often caught in these filters are sites that have an educational basis but contain content that is at first glance inappropriate. Deviant Art, a website of user-submitted art and tools for graphic design, is inhibited by the district’s servers because of nudity in art. Websites that pertain to health or politics may also be blocked because of keywords that are caught by the district’s filtering software. Even social media sites such as Reddit and Facebook can contain valuable information – either through discussion about everything from scientific ethics to politics or through the use of social networking in business.
“Facebook is a huge marketing tool, except we can’t use it to find examples of for kids to look at,” marketing teacher Mercedes Rasmussen said. “It’s tough because business is changing and, yeah, I can teach for television, newspapers, magazines; but the future of advertising is in social networking.”
Despite requests from East’s business department, the district has failed to allow access to social netowrking at school because of all the legal issues, Rasmussen explained. And according to business teacher Jennifer Hair, the decision to allow Facebook or a “school-safe” software version of Facebook takes too long to finalize. By the time these decisions are made, Facebook has already evolved.
According to Neal, sites like these are primarily blocked due to policy– whether it is to conform to CIPA, by request from higher district administration or because of a security threat. According to her, these policies– as well as the funding SMSD receives as a result of following CIPA guidelines – shape the district’s attitude towards the role of the Internet in Shawnee Mission schools. Sites such as Grooveshark and Facebook as well as potentially inappropriate educational sites were reviewed by the staff development department before being deemed unacceptable by district officials. These policies define what is unacceptable as well as the balance between informative and obscene. In this way, the Internet becomes a quandary of distraction and danger versus information and ideas.
“I know that one of the greatest learning tools that any of us have ever had has been the evolution of the Internet. I’m all by where I can go and what I can find at the drop of a hat,” Dr. Krawitz said. “The other side is that you’re also vulnerable. It just depends where a person wants to go [on the Internet].”
The Internet, as an open source, is defined by who uses it. This view of the Internet as a potential friend rather than a foe has led to the breaking down of firewalls in certain school districts, as Director of Information Systems Tim Peltz did with the Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin did last year. He explained in a recent edutopia.org article that teachers are being trained in how to teach how to use the Internet as a resource to be used, not to be limited.
“The Internet is a right, whereas previously it was seen as a privilege,” Peltz said. “If you take the Internet away, it’s kind of like saying, ‘You can’t have this textbook.’”
Behind this way of thinking is a belief that students should learn how to use technology constructively at school, and that students will use the technology at home anyways. And without education about the Internet and the complex ethics surrounding it, kids will not be exposed to the more productive side of the Internet, according to Peltz.
“I think you could be okay in some sense with no blockage of anything if you trust the judgement of the people you’re working with,” Dr. Krawitz said. “But at some point, because the school is seen as an extension of the home, common sense says we shouldn’t allow what some parents wouldn’t allow, which ranges from nude art to social networking.”
However, the district continues to rely on the CIPA guidelines and district administration to make decisions about filters. According to Dr. Krawitz, under these policies, the blocks, though potentially unfair and ineffective, will remain a constant in SMSD.