A tangled Web

Monitoring Internet use in school causing concern

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— Though the debate over whether to ban books in schools and libraries rages on, a new controversy is brewing locally over Internet access.

As new communication avenues open up, the ability for minors to access information and images has grown exponentially. Meanwhile, schools have to balance the right to know with the need for protection in an on-line world filled with both opportunities to learn and opportunities to be confronted with material many deem unsuitable.

At its heart, the debate touches on issues of morality and parental control. And within the next year, it will likely find its way into a small conference room at the corner of the George P. Sauer Human Services Center and into the laps of the members of the Steamboat Springs School Board.

In 1999, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) got behind legislation that made school and libraries that receive federal funding for telecommunications filter certain Web sites. The "Children's Internet Protection Act," signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in December, 2000, mandates that schools receiving "e-rate" communications funds put restrictions on pornographic material and other "obscene" sites.

Determining which specific filters are used is up to the individual school districts, though the end result must meet Federal Communications Commission standards.

But the act's authority doesn't stop at banning pornography. The legislation also allows local school boards or districts to block other sites they deem inappropriate.

That section (Subparagraph C) of the act reads:

"A school, school board, or other authority may also use a technologyto filter or block Internet access through the computers concerned to any materialthat the school, school board, or other authority determines to be inappropriate for minors."

Subparagraph C allows boards to interpret what is "inappropriate for minors." And that's where implementation of the act, and the ensuing discussions about civil liberties and community values, get especially sticky.

Last week, the Moffat County School District tentatively decided to ban certain Web sites from its school computers. The potentially blocked sites range from pornographic sites to sites highlighting violence, racism, hate and gambling.

In addition, the board moved to block sites discussing gay and lesbian issues and alternative journals, among others, from high school computers. Different sites were banned depending on the grade classification of the children.

Some sites they didn't recommend to ban at the high school level, however, include on-line stock market trading sites and sites about illicit drugs.

Craig District Superintendent Pete Bergmann defended the board's actions, saying that the Internet in schools should be used as an instructional tool, not a forum for "opinions."

"It's important that we realize that we're talking about instruction and education and not necessarily opinions as to what people believe in," Bergmann said.

Some Craig students reacted angrily to the decisions, including the blocking of access to gay and lesbian material and to sites with violent themes. They'll get their chance to air their grievances at a school board meeting on Nov. 26.

In Steamboat, students are subject to self-imposed restrictions through an "acceptable use" policy co-signed by parents and students. The schools can track students' movement on the Web, though they rarely take those measures, said Cathleen Totten. In six years of monitoring, the district has caught only three students surfing inappropriate Web sites, Totten said.

Totten is the technology director for the district and is in charge of navigating the ins and outs of the district's Internet policy. Though the school board had to approve the acceptable use policy, Totten has control over how it is implemented.

In less than a year, however, decisions about Internet use will have to go back to the school board because the district receives about $20,000 in federal funds for telecommunications, she said. At that point, the board will have to decide how liberally it will interpret the act and what it will block.

The potential policy change disturbs Totten.

"It is upsetting to me. It's really the same thing as banning books," Totten said.

"I don't believe in it but if it's going to be forced on the school district to receive federal funds we have to look seriously at it."

When discussing the Internet issue, one parent of a local high school student also brought up the analogy to monitoring the books young people read.

"It seems not that much different from looking over the shoulder of a kid in the library," Norm Weaver said. "The Internet is just a different resource to a larger world."

Weaver said he thinks the issue of Internet censorship should first be discussed at home before students go on-line at school or at the library. If the district has to impose restrictions, it should be a community process, Weaver said.

Some Steamboat Springs High School students who use the Internet to do research said the self-monitoring process has worked well. They couldn't imagine why anyone would want to surf the Internet for pornography or other "obscene" material at school.

Beyond banning pornography, however, the students were reticent to allow the censoring of other sites that could be informational.

"I think you should be able to go anywhere you want if you're doing things for the right reasons," said Mike Litzau, a 14-year-old. "They have to trust the students."

To reach Avi Salzman, call 871-4203

or e-mail asalzman@steamboatpilot.com

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