The Filter Debate

When it comes to filtering the internet in schools, safety versus accessibility seems to be the center of the debate.   How do we keep our kids safe while giving them access to learn important 21st Century technology skills? As I searched for my district’s filtering policy, I realized it was not easy to find. While the district’s Responsible Use Policy is available on the school website, the internet filtering policy is not readily available on the school website, staff intranet or staff share drives. After requesting a copy of our current filtering policy from the technology department and my school librarian, I was sent a document titled Board Policy on Internet Filtering. This resource was a summary of the responsible use policy with one paragraph on filtering. There is not a written policy that defines what categories get filtered available to staff or the community.

Our district filtering policy follows the CIPA guidelines, which requires districts to implement internet safety measures in prerequisite to receiving universal service discount rates. The written filtering policy for my district can be found below.

Each district computer with internet access and the district’s network systems shall have filtering devices or software that blocks access to visual depictions that are obscene, pornographic, inappropriate for students, or harmful to minors, as defined by the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act and as determined by the Superintendent or designee.

The Superintendent or designee shall enforce the use of such filtering devices. Upon approval from the Superintendent or designee, an administrator, supervisor, or other authorized person may disable the filtering device for bona fide research or other lawful purpose.”

The policy does not specifically state what is inappropriate and will be blocked. In fact, the filtering service was updated this past December to block more sites than before. This really puts teachers at a disadvantage for using great resources without a great amount of advanced planning. On a positive note, filtering is different for students and teachers. Teachers have access to more sites including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter while students do not have access to any of these websites.

gatekeeperweb tools

The company we use for filtering determines what gets filtered and teachers can request a site to get unblocked by providing a strong instructional objective to its use. The decision is then made by one of four district systems administrators. Unfortunately the process tends to be slow. I created a space webquest for my students using Google sites, which was blocked. It was unblocked a week after we finished the unit of study.

Bud Hunt, Joe Wood and Mike Gras discussed how their districts utilize internet filters during the video discussion for this unit. The statement that stood out the most to me in the discussion came from Joe Wood when he said, “It’s not about filtering, it’s about teaching kids appropriate behaviors.” Our students love using technology but they do not know the importance of being safe online or which of their behaviors are unsafe. Students will either find a way to view inappropriate material or be exposed to inappropriate at school or home. We need to teach them how to respond when something inappropriate appears.

I just conducted this type of lesson with my students this week. My 7th grade science students are becoming the teachers as they research different body systems then plan to teach their peers about this topic. First, I taught my students how to search for images licensed for reuse using the advanced search feature in Google. Then we talked about what to do when, not if, images appeared that may be inappropriate. I explained that with a topic like body systems, inappropriate images were more likely to appear. This is also an important lesson for schools with a BYOD policy. Students may have access to the school’s network but students often choose against the network connection for a variety of reasons including speed of access and internet filters. As students made videos for their presentations, they wanted to email them to me so I could put them in their school share drive for editing. Email is one thing that is blocked for our students when using a school network connection.

I don’t necessarily think that our parents and students need to know the specific filtering policies of the district but something should be included in our Responsible Use Policy. Below you will find my edited version of my school’s RUP including the two paragraphs about our filtering practices.


Respect Yourself: Select online names, language/content and posts that are educationally appropriate.

Protect Yourself: Do not publish personal details, contact details or a schedule of activities. Students and employees should not have an expectation of privacy when using district technology resources.

Respect Others: Do not use technology to bully or tease other people. Do not make video/audio recordings or take pictures of students/employees without their prior permission. Posing as someone else is forbidden.

Protect Others: Maintain a safe computing environment by using the content filtering solution put in place to prevent access to sites that may contain inappropriate material and notify appropriate officials of inappropriate behavior and content, vulnerabilities, risks and breaches involving district technology resources.

Respect and Protect Intellectual Property: Suitable cite any and all use of websites, books, media, etc. and respect all copyrights. Request to use the software and media that others produce.

This video gives one school’s view on filtering. Check out this great conversation on access vs. liability.

After watching this video I wanted to check out the Urbana School district RUP.  The first thing I noticed was that it was six pages long!  However, it restates information in different sections throughout the policy.  A summary  of the Urbana School district RUP would be the same as my edited version above.  I would definitely recommend they shorten their RUP by not restating the same policies in different parts of the document.

I also checked out the RUP of a district in Norman, OK.  I really liked this sites detail in their policies.  It lists the specific categories that are filtered in the picture below.  All of the policies I looked at focused on CIPA laws as their focus but also shopping and gaming sites.  I found it very interesting that this district does not block those two categories of websites as well as instant chat.  This district seems to believe in more access over the possibility of liability.

Norman OK RUP

 Which side of the issue do you fall on?  Do you think it is more important to give access and teach our students to be responsible or should safety and liability be at the front of our minds?

6 thoughts on “The Filter Debate

Add yours

  1. Very thorough response here Michelle. Your summary is particularly useful and simple. I think we have at times over complicate the issue when if we focus on the right behaviors we can worry less about being granular with rules and policies.

    1. Mr. Shareski,
      Thank you for your feedback. I just commented on Kyle’s blog post that most AUP’s and internet filtering policies focus on what student’s can’t and shouldn’t do with technology at school. I think we need to focus more on what they can do. We still need to make sure students and parents are aware of the consequences of misuse but that shouldn’t be the focus. If we are only telling our students what they can’t do, how are they going to know what they should do?

  2. I definitely think that education is key and it more important than strong filters. Students need to learn. I don’t know if this is possible since I am not a network guru but it would be great if there could be a gradual release of filtering with more access as students participate in educational sessions and gain understanding. This training could be done by the classroom teacher in class or perhaps a more extensive session after school. It might be like compared to military clearance which is based on passing certain inspections based on knowledge and years of service. I think this might be an issue of logistics, but it’s a thought.

    I had the same filter realization situation that you discussed in your post as I tried to find where in our Internet Policy we had the CIPA “mandated” language on filters. While I know we have filters in place, it seems like our documentation doesn’t meet the specifications.

    With our prior tech director, we filtered more than just CIPA items. This was done to limit bandwidth being used for streaming media and to prevent access to social media. My current director wants to provide a more open access that is based on responsible use. He has systematically set out to have our technology committee work on a district vision of this behavior of being responsible with technology. I am very excited about this. We are experiencing growing pains, but at least we are growing.

    One thing that you mentioned that I believe is spot on was your explanation of how when searching for human body images that students should expect to bump into inappropriate content. It really shouldn’t be a surprise. Having an adult inform students of this prior to the search is crucial. I think students do feel guilty when an inappropriate image comes up and often believe it is their fault. By explaining that it is a component of the Internet, it puts the issue into perspective. Basically, it’s going to happen both now and later so have a plan in place.

    Just want to mention that your post is very thorough and well thought out. As always, I enjoy your insight and perspective.

  3. Laurie,
    Thanks for your reply. I agree that gradual release would be a great idea. Have a different level for elementary, middle and high school students. My district does a pretty good job of limiting what is blocked for teachers. Teachers in my district have access to YouTube but students do not. I often use the website Viewpure and the bookmarklet Quiettube to watch YouTube videos with my students without the comments, ads or suggested videos. That way we can still use the great content I find without the chance for inappropriate content surprising us.

  4. Michelle,
    I really enjoyed reading your post!
    It sounds like your district’s policy is very similar to ours. There really doesn’t seem to be much that is blocked. I 100% feel that education is more important than filtering. Our students aren’t always protected by our school walls, so we need to make them aware of the dangers that can be crossed or created through the internet. We hear too often about situations of internet bullying that often end in unfortunate situations. If we made our students aware of the dangers wouldn’t these situations be limited?
    It’s sad but I hear of issues even at the 3rd grade level. My students love playing this online game called animal jams. They can create an account and talk with friends online. Already I’ve heard arguments in school over, “so and so got into my account and cleared my games”, “so and so won’t let me join their group and it hurt my feelings.” Although these situations seems small now, can they turn into something more down the road.
    We know that this education should start at home, but unfortunately not all students have this support. Should the district educate our students on the safety or should this be something presented by the teachers?

    1. Abby,
      I feel that if I am using technology with my students then it is also my responsibility to make sure they are aware of how to be safe online. I often embed mini lessons about online safety into my content lessons when we are doing something new with technology. I had a student come to me last year because someone had created a fake instagram account with their real name and was posting inappropriate things. I talked to all my students about this behavior being against the law and went on to explain that they shouldn’t follow or friend someone they don’t personally know. Anyone can create an account that says they are a 13 year old girl from CA but what if that person was actually an adult looking at the pictures they post of themselves in front of public places? I then had our school resource officer visit all my classes and explain that creating a fake account in someone else’s name was fraud and against the law. She then explained the consequences and how she could investigate to discover the identity of the person that created the account. I had parents emailing me that night saying their children wanted to delete their current accounts and create new ones so they could only follow people they knew. The fake account also disappeared the same night. These conversations had nothing to do with my science content but everything do with the safety of my students. I take that job very seriously. How do you handle the topic of safety with your students?

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