Portsmouth schools dispute ACLU criticism on web filtering

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internet-marketing-strategy-traffic1PORTSMOUTH — Portsmouth is the only public school district in the state that blocks students from viewing online material on religion and entertainment, according to a report released Monday by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Furthermore, the ACLU report contends, the district’s internet filtering software also blocks access to the web category “lifestyle and culture,” which includes information on gay and lesbian rights. Only two other districts block this content, the ACLU report says.

On Tuesday, School Committee Chairman David Croston took issue with the report and said the district is committed to allowing students and staff access to all web content that’s necessary for their research.

The ACLU report, “Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Education,” doesn’t single out Portsmouth. Many districts were criticized for their use of internet filter software that designates certain categories of websites — and even sites that simply mention specific words — off-limits to students using school computers.

“This deeply flawed software, and school districts’ over-extensive embrace of it, prevents students across Rhode Island from accessing relevant and educative information in the classroom, and unduly limits teachers in their lesson plans as well,” states the report. “Allowing school administrators virtually unbridled discretion to determine how this technological censor will be used gives them a power over classroom teaching that would never be tolerated for offline lessons.”

According to the ACLU, every school district in the state uses Trustwave’s M86 filtering software provided by the R.I. Network for Educational Technology (RINET). It’s the same filtering software used locally in public libraries, the report states. M86 offers 23 filtering topics that are further broken down into 125 categories, the ACLU said, adding that purchasers can also create their own categories.

“The filter allows for the blocking not only of categories like ‘child pornography,’ but also such topics as ‘community organizations,’ ‘humor’ and ‘streaming media.’ Managers of the filter may block an entire topic, such as ‘entertainment,’ or select smaller subcategories within, such as ‘art,’ ‘comics’ and ‘online greeting cards,’” stated the report.

However, even when the categories are “clearly appropriate,” some schools still choose to block them, according to the ACLU. Prior to the ACLU’s national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, the report stated, “M86’s ‘Lifestyles’ filter served as a de facto ‘gay rights filter,’ inappropriately blocking sites such as those for the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination.”

After the ACLU expressed its concerns, M86 changed the title of the category to “Lifestyle & Culture” and revised its description to include more general cultural organizations.

“Despite this change,” the report stated, “two Rhode Island school districts — New Shoreham and Portsmouth — continue to block this category. Thus, for students in these school districts, many positive LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) websites may remain inaccessible.”

According to the ACLU, Portsmouth schools are blocking internet access to more than 50 web categories in all. It’s the only district listed in the report as having blocked “religion” and “entertainment” as web categories. In addition, Portsmouth was one of only two districts named to have blocked the categories of “fashion” and “humor”; and one of only three districts to block “lifestyle and culture,” “paranormal,” “reviewed/miscellaneous” and “social opinion.”

District defends practices

David Croston, chairman of the school committee, defended the district’s use of web filtering on Tuesday. Mr. Croston said he’s discussed the ACLU report with Rose Muller, the schools’ informational technology director.

“Rose does not believe we’re blocking some of these sites. There’s a disagreement with the report itself,” said Mr. Croston.

“That being said, from a school committee perspective, we want to enable our students and our staff to be able to access diverse content that leads to the best information possible to do their research analysis. That includes LGBT sites, that includes religious sites.”

He said he plans on discussing the issue further with more school officials and staff members. Any revisions to the policy will be posted to the school website to “clarify any potential misconceptions,” he said.

To read the full ACLU report, visit www.riaclu.org.

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