Arming Myself for Battle: Internet filters in schools

13 Nov
Grayson County, Kentucky's high school filter ...

There are certain issues that I am aware will be a challenge as a certified school librarian, such as censorship challenges and making judgement calls on what is “appropriate” material at various grade levels. One particular issue that intersects with both of these concerns is Internet filtering at schools.

In a school environment, it is very common for administrators to take a very conservative position.  In order to meet CIPA requirements, many schools opt for strong filtering software.  In some cases, not enough people know how much MORE these filters keep out than is required by CIPA, not to mention how much inappropriate material can still be accessed with a filter.  In other cases, people are fully aware of how overly-restrictive filtering software can be, but they take a stance of “better safe than sorry,” meaning they’d rather block out too much than risk not blocking out enough.  Personally, I take issue with this because it is detrimental to the educational experience and worse, it is lazy.  I do not mean to diminish how busy and challenging the work of a school administrator, teacher or librarian can be or how important it is to protect students from unsafe material or individuals, but it is our  job to do what it takes to provide the best tools possible to students and to keep them safe.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive to some, I believe part of keeping students safe is to allow greater access to the Internet and social networking tools with proper supervision and guidance.  How else will students learn to use these tools safely and appropriately?  Continuing to pretend these don’t exist during school hours and then leaving them to their own devices on these sites is a non-solution (because they WILL still use them) .

Second best to using the minimal amount of filtering necessary to comply with CIPA regulations would be to give key figures in the school override abilities so they can instantly allow access to a site at the point of need, as described here by Mary Ann Bell in her January 2009 column for Internet @ Schools.  I particularly like Bell’s suggestion that beyond the handful of school administrators, librarians and technology experts with override capabilities, this privilege can be offered to teachers who agree to participate in training that would qualify them to evaluate websites for educational purposes.  I love the incentive this creates for faculty members across the school community to become informed about what CIPA really requires and to learn more about using web tools in the classroom.  And hopefully, as a result, those teachers will become additional advocates for information access within the school community.

In reality, most schools simply have a process where teachers can request a site be unblocked but often, by the time that request is addressed, the need for the information has passed, and the time this takes can lead over time to people being discouraged from even trying.

The school librarian is a key figure in the decision about Internet filtering in schools because of the training professional librarians receive regarding information retrieval and evaluation, as well as regarding information access, not to mention the professional values of freedom of information.  The librarian is likely to have the strongest stance in favor of unfettered access in the school among faculty members.  The training and research that a librarian is armed with will probably need to be used to defend Internet access to parents, administrators and teachers if a librarian is in a school district that is particularly conservative.

This issue is one I am least confident about as I think of my role as a new librarian in a school.  Regardless of how much information, research and passion I have on my side, from my fieldwork experiences so far in New York City public schools, it seems like a very long, uphill battle to get filters removed from school computers.  I have not been in a school yet that allows access to YouTube or most social networking sites.  I see firsthand in my graduate classes what value these web 2.0 tools add to the educational experience, but as a first-year librarian (or just a new librarian in a district), picking this fight seems unwise.  At what point does that sort of negotiation become appropriate?   What is the best way to begin those conversations, and more importantly, to escalate it if my initial requests for access are denied?

While I complete my degree and the requirements for school media certification, I realize it is important for me to stay informed about these policies and issues in whatever state or district in which I may seek future employment.  I am going to need to know how to express my thoughts about this divisive problem in interviews and from the first days I am on staff somewhere.

A lot of research about the value of less restrictive access in schools as well as great ideas for using web tools in education can be found across the web, at your local library, or simply by talking to people in the field.  One of my favorite places to find research about the habits of adolescents online and tools to educate students about online safety is Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society – in particular their Youth and Media Policy Working Group.  The Youth and Media group testifies before Congress, performs field research and writes reports and papers advocating for free access and online safety among all youth, in particularly those at risk.

The typical audience for Berkman Center research are policymakers and technology administrators, but earlier this year, my classmate Susanna Hall and I consolidated a lot of the Youth and Media group’s research and testimony and re-packaged it as a toolkit for school administrators to utilize when developing or updating their school’s technology policies.  Although this piece is aimed at administrators, I encourage all teachers, librarians and parents to take a look at it, as I think the information is valuable and can be used as a resource in discussions with administrators in your school district if you want to influence adjustments to their existing policies.

More information about Filtering and CIPA:

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3 Responses to “Arming Myself for Battle: Internet filters in schools”

  1. Marilyn Arnone November 14, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    It was worth waiting for. I think you posted earlier last week that you weren’t ready to tackle this issue just yet and I’m glad you waited. Your post not only does an excellent job of presenting the issues and making some insightful suggestions, but you have provided useful links and information that can be used to further explore this topic. You have given considerable thought to the issue and I thank you for sharing.

    • bkbiblio November 14, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked the post. I don’t think there is an easy answer to this issue, and doing the best thing will certainly not be likely to be the easiest thing.


  1. Arrows In My Quiver: More thoughts on Internet filtering « Brooklyn Biblio - November 16, 2011

    […] may remember in my last post, I opined about the importance of fighting for less restrictive Internet access in schools.  […]

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