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SCHOOLS' INTERNET FILTER HINDERS EVEN LEGITIMATE USE OF THE WEB

You don't know Bess yet, but chances are your children do.

If they attend one of the roughly 50 percent of public schools in Western New York that employ her, she's the one who tells them they can't log onto Playboy.com or an eBay auction site.

But she's also the one who tells students like City Honors senior Joshua Sanders he can't go to some biology or poetry sites, or junior Chinyere Ezie that she can't access her own home page.

Bess is the warm and fuzzy product name given to N2H2.com's Internet filtering system, the one employed by most area schools, one of the systems that have become a central issue in the first big First Amendment challenge of the new millennium.

Why? Orchard Park Computer Services Director Catherine Marriott said she's concerned that, if her district gets Bess, her teachers and students will have difficulty entering state databases or even periodical indexes that the schools buy.

The issue grew into one of local control late last year when Congress tacked the Children's Internet Protection Act onto its $450 billion end-of-the-year budget bill. It requires schools to install Internet filtering programs if they want to receive federal funding for technology improvements.

The bill has supporters, such as Orchard Park businessman Durham McCauley. He said he became aware of the need for filtering software at home while helping his second-grade daughter research a report on manatees. They wound up on a site that asked suggestive questions of children seeking to register to enter the site.

McCauley said he has since talked to an Orchard Park student who clicked onto a pornography site while she was researching "Romeo and Juliet," and he said his older daughter had the uncomfortable task of telling a teacher when a site came up making reference to sexual activities when she was looking for information on games and leisure activities of the 1800s.

McCauley said he was shocked when he found out Orchard Park uses no filtering software. It does ask students and parents to sign an "acceptable use" form.

"To send that form without informing parents there was no filter software in place, I don't think most parents would have signed it," McCauley said. "Can one teacher be expected to supervise six or seven computers simultaneously?"

But Marriott contends that filters give parents and teachers a false sense of security because of what they miss, while depriving children and teachers of access to legitimate information. She fears the introduction of filters will lead teachers to relax their guard.

Orchard Park tries a variety of other strategies to safeguard students, Marriott said. These range from using parent volunteers called "Net nannies" to watch younger Web users to using child-oriented entry portals such as Yahooligan.

The district also encourages teachers to "Web whack," to save sites -- with permission -- onto the district's own local network, where they can be accessed by students without opening an Internet connection. Students also have their own sign-ons, which establish a trail that links them to the computer they were using at any time.

"We have worked very hard with our staff for them to understand that even though the Internet has wonderful information out there for them to use that they need to be very diligent in their use of that information with children," Marriott said. "They have to make sure that they check out sites before they take them there, just as they preview videos before they bring them into the classroom."

Marriott's concerns echo those of the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which have vowed court challenges to the congressional edict.

The technicians who are responsible for implementing filtering programs have a more favorable view of filtering, particularly the "Bess" program. Bess is a service of N2H2, a Seattle company.

Because BOCES coordinates the program throughout Western New York's eight counties via the Western New York Regional Information Center, schools are eligible for New York State aid in paying for the program, which essentially makes Bess the filtering program of choice.

"As a rule, the districts in our service are really happy for having that protection," said Debbie Arlington, who coordinates filtering services for the Regional Information Center. "When you have 20 or 30 computers in a lab, it's really impossible to keep an eye on Johnny's computer and be sure of what he's doing."

In contrast to filtering programs on home computers, Arlington said, the N2H2 program is fluid. Each night, the Regional Information Center downloads a database of Web sites that are deemed inappropriate for student use onto five -- soon to be six -- servers at its West Seneca headquarters.

Users then have the ability to challenge the decisions when Bess tells them no, she said. There's a button on the screen that leads to an e-mail link to N2H2, where users can suggest sites be removed from the database or added.

The company employs 17 of its 64 site reviewers to handle the e-mails and adjust the daily database, said Ken Collins, the company's director of content management. He said the program gives customers the options of filtering any of 41 categories and also of activating overrides when necessary.

Among the sites that get screened out are almost all involving free Web sites or free e-mail, which can be used to create fake accounts.

"It's extremely hard because of the availability and volatility of free sites," Collins said. "When people turn free Web pages on, the default action is to turn them all off."

The result, Collins said, is that sites such as classroom pages or even the free sites offered by the New York State Parent Teacher Association would have to be singled out by customer requests before they would be removed from the filtered list.

City Honors student Ezie said that means she can't even view her own site, a site on a free server devoted mostly to poetry and music.

"The main problem with the proxy server is there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to what is filtered out," she said. "I don't agree with the premise, but if they're going to do it they should have a way of monitoring sites that are done by people like me who can't afford to pay $80 a year to register a URL.

"A lot of students don't have computers at home, and they used the computer lab as an opportunity to create Web pages and e-mail accounts to communicate. Now that they don't have that availability, they have to go to libraries and other places to try to find access."

Other students say filtering presents a challenge that can inspire some creative solutions.

"Some of my friends who know French or German are able to go to sites that would probably be monitored by Bess," said Joshua Sanders.

"By having Bess, it almost encourages it," said classmate Geoffrey Golden. "It gives you kind of a forbidden-fruit incentive."

The Buffalo city schools, with their 45,000 students, present a mammoth challenge for computer administrators.

"We are filtering districtwide," said Vicki Zimmer, Buffalo's supervisor of instructional technology. "Now we're looking at how we can come up with a reasonable plan to make some exceptions or overrides. How we can do that in a district this size?

"We've gone the conservative route so far, not allowing kids to change settings and so forth. It's impossible to be everywhere all the time."

Other school tech administrators say they've hit rough spots. The districts have to force the issue to work out quirks. For example, Springville had to create a way to work around the filter last year to access the databases it had subscribed to for its library.

On Grand Island, district Technology Coordinator Jim Szafran said he had to get a password from BOCES to unlock the filter for three hours at a time for a teacher who was teaching "Internet for the Collegebound," when roughly half the sites needed for the class were being blocked.

The American Library Association said cases like those are not unusual. According to Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the ALA, studies have shown that even the best filters stop no more than 87 percent of sites with sexually explicit information. Filters typically stop as much as 30 percent of useful information from getting through, she said.

"Filters are mechanical devices, and we don't know of any filters that work," Krug said. "There are always some glitches with filters. They're either overinclusive or underinclusive."

Krug cited examples of sites connected with a Mars exploratory mission being filtered out, large numbers of Native American sites being eliminated because of possible references to the psychedelic plant peyote and the site of Sen. Richard "Dick" Armey, a supporter of filtering, being excised because of his nickname.

"These are extreme examples, but they're happening," she said.

The ALA's lawsuit would also focus on the fact the congressional edict is an unfunded mandate that takes control away from local municipalities, Krug said.

Though Arlington said most schools are paying $1,000 to $1,500 a year for Bess, Marriott projected filtering could cost Orchard Park as much as $5,000 a year, fueling her objections to it.

"It's very discouraging for me to think that I'm going to have to devote technical time to managing a system that I know doesn't work 100 percent of the time," she said.

Steve Ludwig, technology coordinator for the Clarence schools, said he hasn't heard any objections from the schools' paying constituency -- the residents.

"Those parents who have been in, I think they feel comfortable we're filtering," he said. "The combination of teacher responsibility and filtering software seems to be one they feel is appropriate."

McCauley, the Orchard Park resident, would welcome filtering and has offered to contribute toward funding for a filtering system for Orchard Park.

"Nothing is foolproof, but on the whole (current filtering) is pretty darned good," he said. "I believe it would have picked (the Web sites children encountered) up. It should."

Students are more skeptical.

"There are some courses where access to the Web is sort of a prerequisite," said Sanders, "like an English class where you're allowed to have your own home page and do special presentations. But pictures, poetry, information from sites that you need are getting to be more difficult to get to."

The result might be to push students back to a more archaic form of the printed word -- the book.

"In our library, you can probably find content more explicit than the Web sites that we're allowed to see through the server," said Sam Finn, another City Honors student. "It's way more open."

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