Controversy over internet at high school
By Mari Kanagy & Isabelle Spence, Co-Content Editors
With technology so integrated into academic life, school administrations across the nation must now face the challenge of how to regulate this tool. This issue has been heavily debated among the high school student body, with opinions ranging from indifference to outrage.
The school district has several methods of monitoring what students are able to access while at school or while using the school’s Chromebooks. Some of these programs restrict what websites and URLs are searchable, while others monitor the individual sites for specific, pre-designated keywords. The goal of these programs is to prevent exposure to possibly dangerous or explicit material.
“There’s certain categories that we’ve just flat-out blocked, regardless,” high school network engineer and application developer Thane Gill said. “That would be pornagraphy, malware, [and] stuff people wouldn’t really want to [have access to] to anyway.”
Additionally, the school hopes to remove distractions from the school environment.
“The purpose is to limit access to materials which are obscene or offensive, or [to] remove access to materials which could allow students [to] focus on alternate materials rather than those provided by their teachers,” assistant principal Alanah Baron said.
Some students are not bothered by the restrictions placed on specific websites.
“I don’t really mind,” an anonymous student said. “I don’t use websites that are blocked.”
These students see the system as a necessity in creating a productive learning environment.
“I have come across many blocked websites that are gaming websites,” an anonymous student said. “It is completely understandable from a teaching [and] administrative standpoint that these sites are blocked.”
While this form of internet monitoring has its supporters, the method is also met with opposition. 92 percent of the 36 students surveyed wanted to change the current restrictions on the internet.
“Civil rights and liberties are one of the most important foundations of American life, but they can be so often abused and overlooked in our schools due to a lack of respect for students based on concerns about maturity,” junior Sean Robertson said.
These concerns bring into play broader rights of freedom of speech and rights to access information. However, these concerns go beyond the jurisdiction of the administration and into federal law.
In 2000, Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The bill required libraries and kindergarten through 12th-grade schools to enact restrictions on their internet as a requirement for federal funding. The CIPA’s aim is to protect young children from possibly dangerous content on the then newly created internet.
“It’s not like we as a school district have any set policy on what you can and cannot see; we just have to meet this [federal] requirement to get funding,” Gill said.
This law led to the introduction of restrictive programs across the district, the most well-known method being GoGuardian. This program controls many facets of internet restriction at the high school. In addition to always monitoring and blocking dangerous websites, it allows teachers to control which sites students can access during class time, as well as view what individual students are looking at.
“Go Guardian [is] this pretty extreme version of filtering, for students,” Rock said. “It’s the most scary version of a government-controlled access to learning.”
Rock understands student concern of invasion of privacy tied with the program. However, the absence of this type of monitoring has historically resulted in more distractions among students.
“What teachers have noticed when they start employing the constraints of GoGuardian is … this massive increase of productivity in the classroom,” Rock said.
Despite its added efficiency, some staff members have given up the use of GoGuardian due to student concerns.
“I think there was a bit of pushback from students about an invasion of privacy,” math teacher Andy Callender said. “[Students felt it was] an invasion of [their privacy] to use the computers on their own and be independent, be autonomous.”
Restrictions in school have always been a subject of heated discussion. The question of what kids have a right to view while at school is both a multi-layered and complex issue. However, some do not see the issue as one of suppression.
“In my mind, GoGuardian isn’t used as a [form of] censorship or restricting, in a way, besides keeping kids on track,” Gill said.
In contrast, many students are in opposition to the system, as occasionally the program malfunctions, or teachers set it up incorrectly, causing student inconvenience.
“I would reduce the use of GoGuardian,” an anonymous student said. “I have encountered times when I have been in [a] classroom trying to access a perfectly normal website, but a teacher in another classroom has GoGuardian on, and it blocks my usage of many websites or even opening tabs.”
While GoGuardian is a teacher-controlled site, the school also employs less hands-on methods to monitor students. Websites are constantly screened through various servers. Sites with dangerous or explicit content are compiled onto a blacklist.
“[The blacklist is] created either by keywords, or it could be some sort of computer intelligence, some type of AI,” Gill said.
However, this dependence on computer screening often leads to mistakes in the system. Many students have reported seemingly innocuous sites being unavailable through the school’s network.
Several educational websites have also been reported as blocked, and as hindering their learning ability on school grounds. Among these blocked websites are CNN, Finch Haven (local photographer John Sage’s website) Dictionary.com, National Geographic, and DropBox.
“Right now, it’s not any policy thing that [is] disallowing those sites; it’s only just that [they] happened to be caught up in the content filter that was catching the more malicious [sites],” Gill said.
When safe sites are accidentally banned, students can contact the tech department and ask for access. The tech department is then able to “whitelist” the websites, allowing the general student body to access them again.
“We’re not necessarily policing the sites we’re being asked to whitelist,” Gill said.
However, the tech department realizes that this is not a perfect system. For instance, the entire district uses the same guest network, which puts the whole system at a higher level of restriction.
“[A viewable website] has to be as appropriate for a kindergartener as it is for a senior here,”
Because of this, the system blocks many high school-appropriate websites from
“Every couple months, we’re revisiting how we can block less or block it more permissively, [and] allow the high school students to see more than the Chautauqua students,” Gill said.
This changing system has led to confusion among the student body.
“There needs to be a clear, easy, and publicized way for students to fix issues,” one anonymous student said.
The tech crew is eager to receive student feedback on what sites they and their peers have encountered that they believe should be unblocked. Despite the confusion surrounding the blockage system and how it’s implemented, some students have had a positive experience working with the tech department to fix issues in the system.
“Genius (a song-lyrics website) was blocked at one point,” an anonymous student said. “I emailed [the tech department] and argued that being able to read books on campus but not read lyrics is contradictory. Genius is now accessible.”
Recently, controversy has arisen over which sites are being blocked. While the school is legally required to block dangerous or explicit websites, the administration often goes a step further. Specifically, educational sites such as SparkNotes have been made inaccessible at school.
“These materials are not used during the school day because they are typically not needed for our educational purpose,” Baron said. “Students are expected to read the original text, rather than a summarized version. I’ve heard that some students have chosen to read SparkNotes rather than the actual text from time to time…. For that reason, we prefer not to allow access at school.”
However, some students feel that it is unfair to block these types of non-explicit websites, as the administration and student body have different viewpoints on the necessity of various websites.
“It is especially difficult for SparkNotes to be blocked, because it helps me to review for quizzes after doing a reading, so if it is blocked, I often feel less prepared for test[s] and quizzes,” an anonymous student said.
Currently, the system seems to have several discrepancies within it. When it comes to blocking websites, students have requested a more clear, cohesive policy.
“There is no system,” Gill said. “I wouldn’t say I’m happy with it. I think that there [are] technical limitations.”
Many wish for a shift from tech-based monitoring towards a more individualized website approval system.
“Technology is only one system for monitoring student internet use,” Baron said.
Because of the flaws in internet restrictions, the administration and tech department are looking to improve the system’s functionality.
Students continue to add their opinions to the discourse.
“As high school students, we deserve the responsibility and opportunity to learn and do research on our own,” sophomore Eric Ormseth said. “The current system does not afford us that freedom, and hinders our learning capabilities.”
Controversy over internet at high school