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Report of students viewing pornographic material on school-issued computers creates concern

School District sign outside administration building on Vista Drive (October 2016). Photo: My Ferndale News

A parent recently contacted school and Ferndale School District officials over her concern about her son being exposed to pornographic material on a school-issued portable computer while riding a school bus.

According to Renee Miller, the parent who contacted officials with her concerns, her son had been “exposed [to pornography] on school issued devices from kids on the bus using hotspots from phones.” Miller then contacted school and district officials asking how this was possible and why the computers were able to access not only porn websites but also other adult oriented websites.

“We just moved here and this is his first year at Ferndale,” Miller told Discover Ferndale.

Miller elaborated in an email sent to school and district officials,

My concern with my son, is the school issued laptop checked out to my 13 yr old 8th grade student at horizon middle school has no protections on the computer to prevent access to restricted content. (Porn, violence, other content for adults only). This is a concern, because while on the school wifi, yes, they are protected…. However…. Students bring cell phones to schools. Cell phones also with Internet access and that can be used as a hot spot. If on that hotspot they can bypass the protections to view other content since they are no longer on school wifi at school.

Ferndale School District Assistant Superintendent Scott Brittain, who had spoken with Miller, told Discover Ferndale the student’s school-issued computers are equipped with Internet filtering technology commonly used by other school districts. It has ability to prevent the user from accessing many types of undesirable online content. But this technology is only activated while the computer is connected to the Ferndale School District’s computer network.

The Ferndale School District began issuing computers to students to take home in 2013.

“When we first began deploying computers to the kids, we asked the community how best to implement this technology,” Brittain told Discover Ferndale. “The recommendation was to filter internet at the school but not to extend the filtering into homes.” “One reason,” Brittain explained, “is the filter can get in the way of valid research such as when it involves news events, like ISIS. We can provide a bypass when needed during school hours but not 24/7.”

Miller said she felt the district was not adhering to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). CIPA imposes certain requirements on schools or libraries in return for receiving discounts for Internet access or internal connections through the E-rate program, which the district does according to Brittain.

To comply with CIPA, enacted in 2000, schools must implement measures to block or filter Internet access to pictures that are obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors. This requirement applies to when the students are accessing the Internet using the subsidized service and connections provided by the district.

Brittain pointed out students and parents are required to sign a Technology Resources Use Agreement (student version and parent version – PDFs) before a computer can be give to the student.

We provide directions to parents on how to secure their home internet (at the router) and controls available through the various Internet service providers. We also provide parents with a variety of Digital Citizenship tools we use to help teach proper use of the devices and practical application of what we are doing.

Miller confirmed to Discover Ferndale she had received the parent agreement,

It does state parents to set filters at home.. WHICH is why I didn’t sign it until going into the school and asking if they at least had filters on the computers

They said yes and for further protections set your wifi restrictions for at home

Miller felt this was an assurance the filtering was in effect all the time, at all locations. “I expected them to be honest and I believed them,” Miller said.

Miller pointed out, while her home WiFi network is locked down, there is nothing preventing the device from being used on a neighbor’s, business’ or cell-phone provided WiFi network.

Brittain responded to that concern,

We tell parents that if they do not feel comfortable with any of these home solutions they can have their son/daughter leave the device at school. We have several students pick their devices up each morning and drop them off as they leave in the afternoon.

Brittain said student computers are periodically and without warning checked to ensure their use is in compliance with the agreement. In some cases discipline has followed including student/parent meetings, requiring the device be returned either temporarily or permanently or being suspended from attending classes.

Discover Ferndale asked Brittain if providing the option to enable filtering all the time for just those who wanted it was feasible. Brittain said they are currently investigating that option with iBoss, the technology provider, and NW Technology, the district’s technology contractor.

This concern is not limited to the Ferndale School District. The issue has been raised in other districts across the United States. In 2012, Colorado revised their education statute to require “a technology protection measure for each technology device provided by the district that allows for access to the internet by a minor from any location.” But that language was removed the following year.

Ferndale and Kent School Districts are the only two Washington State school districts of 20 chosen nationally to participate as “Signature Districts” since 2012 in “Project RED.” Project Red is a research initiative established by 3 organizations including the One-to-One Institute whose sponsors include Intel and Hewlett-Packard. “One-to-One” refers to their goal of changing the computer to student ratio from 20:1 to 1:1.

Michael Gielniak, chief operating officer of One-to-One Institute, said in an article on the Project Red blog this month,

Students bypassing security filters

This is partially a technical issue, and partially a cultural issue. We often see in districts with strict top down structures of control that students may act inappropriately when given freedom they are not prepared for. A district can do a great job of filtering, etc., but until a culture of mutual respect, and student ownership is developed, these type of issues will continue.

3 Comments

  1. M October 22, 2016

    Ferndale isn’t the only school with this problem. My son was exposed in the classroom on a school computer in third grade. We are in the Baker district.

  2. Kurt Jensen October 22, 2016

    When the school was still in the talking phase of the tablet program many parents expressed concern about this very type of problem. During at least two of those meetings, I proposed that the school install monitoring software that would report internet use to parents so they could guide their own kids on proper computer use.
    The schools response was that they were not going to do that but I could request it for my students computer. Well, I will now make that request again and see if I get anywhere with, what has so far been, a very unresponsive school administration.

    Examples of such software: https://www.webwatcher.com/ , https://netresponsibility.com/ and many others.

  3. Kurt Jensen October 25, 2016

    Just an update: I have contacted the district and am told they are looking into options with their tech people. Stay tuned….

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