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  1. What the DOE doesn’t want you reading « Women’s Glib

    [...] Cross-posted at Feministe. [...]

  2. eruvande
    eruvande July 6, 2009 at 4:52 pm |

    Here’s a bizarre one:

    I do freelance web design. I recently built a website for a local theatre association. I used WordPress as its content management system, as I had done for all my past work. Apparently WordPress and other blogging platforms are blocked in schools all over the state. The epic fail: The association mainly serves school-age children and teens with playwriting and acting competitions, and offers scholarships. They can’t find out about any of this from a school computer.

  3. Arkady
    Arkady July 6, 2009 at 5:28 pm |

    A few years back my old school just seemed to have a simple word filter. Which meant i could happily read blogs until someone dropped an f-bomb in the comments. This filter also only worked on ‘rude’ english words, so the 15 year old boys soon expanded their filth vocabularies into other languages!

    Are there any legal arguments that can be made about the rights of school-age kids to access information on the internet at school in cases where they are unlikely have the internet/alternate information sources at home? Am thinking particularly of the access to information on health and contraception here.

  4. MisseLaneius
    MisseLaneius July 6, 2009 at 5:28 pm |

    I remember similar internet restrictions at my high school 10 years ago in Australia, but you’ve got me thinking about the true victims of such censorship within our schools.

    This kind of censorship disproportionally affects the poor and the already marginalised. If you don’t have internet access at home, there is no quick and easy method to find out about these issues.

    I remember as a teenager in a country town, secretively reading Scarleteen and other websites, educating myself about sex, learning that there were other gay teenagers in my own town and joining the council-run community group that was set up.

    I can’t imagine my life without that information at that time. I would be a less confident person. I wouldn’t have been able to let my friend know that you can take Plan B up to 72 hours after intercourse (as she thought she had to take it literally the morning after)

    Public education is a commitment to our young people that we will try to equalise their access to information and education, even if we are unable to equalise their life circumstances. We need to start treating young adults as just that – People able to make their own decisions about what is right and wrong.

  5. Madeline
    Madeline July 6, 2009 at 5:28 pm |

    When I was in high school (two years ago), the blocks put on our computers were so strict that I couldn’t research the reproductive cycle of grasshoppers. Apparently, it’s not just human reproduction that is obscene; it’s reproduction in general.

    That was when I was in public school. I went to a private middle school, where I don’t believe we had any blocks put on our computers. Since the school was small, it was easy for the librarian or whatever teacher was around to simply look over and see what you were doing. One time I was looking for a random picture of a bodybuilder to use as a graphic in a project and I came across a picture of a naked man. I was shocked (not so much by the nakedness as by the idea that someone would post a naked picture of himself online) and showed it to the librarian. She started laughing and then I started laughing, and I continued on with my project and forgot about it.

    In contrast to that story – one time, at the same school, I was flipping through a book about China and came across a photograph of some sort of massacre showing lots of bodies and a few severed heads. I was really upset by it and put the book away quickly. I didn’t want anyone else to know what I had seen.

    What I’m trying to say, then, is that an image of violence that I came across unexpectedly disturbed me WAY more than a sexual image that I came across unexpectedly. Furthermore, the disturbing violent image came from a BOOK, not from the internet – yet I wouldn’t advocate for the censorship of books in school libraries any more than I would for the censorship of the internet.

    I understand the need for some controls on internet access in schools, but please – the people in charge of setting such controls need to get their priorities straight.

    Sorry if this post is a little off topic and/or rambling, but it’s something that I feel very strongly about.

  6. Roy
    Roy July 6, 2009 at 5:39 pm |

    That’s the problem with using any of those sorts of filtering systems. While they’re ostensibly used to prohibit the use of the computer to find so-called “obscene and objectionable” materials, they sweep tons and tons of sites up that are actually useful to whatever the organization’s mission is. Quite frankly, I object to any kind of filtering systems in public organizations. It’s one thing to have a policy saying that patrons/students/faculty shouldn’t be using computers for certain uses–I can understand not wanting your employees surfing for porn on company time. But, then, you probably don’t want your employees reading webcomics, buying stuff on Amazon, or reading fan fiction on company time, either. Using broad filtering systems are really useless. They don’t really prevent people from finding the sorts of materials they want to find if they want to find it, but they do make it really hard for people who have legitimate searches to find materials sometimes.

    I generally think that public institutions–libraries and school, especially–that use that kind of ham-fisted moderation/censorship on their patrons and employees are doing both themselves and the communities they’re supposed to be serving a serious disservice.

  7. Mandolin
    Mandolin July 6, 2009 at 6:14 pm |

    Yeah, at the high school my mother works at, they used to have a lot of trouble with things like making sure the students could access sites about breast cancer.

    The censoring program that her district uses allows sites to be specifically included as okay. When she (she’s the librarian, and does a lot of tech work for the school — well, WAS, we’re in California, and it’s extremely unlikely that the high schools where I grew up will have librarians anymore) finds a site that should be approved, I know she sends it in. I spent a day at work with her recently when I was home from grad school, and told her she should send pharyngula in to be approved, after finding it censored.

    I *think* the opt-in feature is standard — but it might be difficult for you to find a staff member who would be willing to do the work of sending in a list of URLs to whoever runs their censorship program. Even if you compiled the list for them. I dunno, potentially worth thinking about.

    My mother’s high school is decidedly *not* well off. They serve a poor, immigrant population. It’s interesting that they have more technology available than your high school appears to — but then again, being in the silicon valley had a perk or two during the bubble, even if it now means that the kids won’t get librarians at all, and the machines which are in place are going to decay because no one’s taking care of them.

  8. Mandolin
    Mandolin July 6, 2009 at 6:18 pm |

    “One time I was looking for a random picture of a bodybuilder to use as a graphic in a project and I came across a picture of a naked man. ”

    Madeline — I know this happened to you when you were using a computer that has free access to the ‘net, but actually, my experience with the software they use on the computers at my mother’s high school indicates that it’s really quite easy to find pornographic material, even through the filter, if that’s your intent. The filters are definitely security theater. They block an unfortunate number of sites that high school students have a non-prurient interest in, while being effectively unable to block the tsunami of porn that the teachers and parents and whoever feel fainty about high school students accessing.

    On the other hand, I get the impression it’s fairly good at blocking youtube videos, which I know was a high priority for the staff at my mother’s school recently.

  9. Makh
    Makh July 6, 2009 at 6:36 pm |

    Our high school’s internet is not nearly as restricted as yours, though I have run into a few problems here and there. My school’s also not as privileged, but the libraries close to my area have quite a few computers. Of course, getting there might be hard for the poor, whose numbers continue to grow with this economic climate.

    Great post, though, and I’m glad Feministe has introduced me to yet another wonderful blog/blogger!

  10. Butch Fatale
    Butch Fatale July 6, 2009 at 6:57 pm |

    Interestingly enough, I live across the street from the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, where they don’t block porn, or even ask patrons to stop looking at it, because they see it as a civil liberties issue. Public schools have a certain amount of leeway in preventing students from engaging in behaviors that are protected outside of school if those behaviors are disruptive to the educational environment. So black armbands protesting the Vietnam war were protected, but perhaps internet searches are not.

    Thinking outloud: As the internet often replaces texts in research these days, one could argue that site blocking software is as problematic as banning To Kill a Mockingbird. If possible, it’d be better to require students to log in to computers before using, and set “safe-search” options on google and then hold students accountable for what they search. Budget-wise, it’s probably cheaper to get the software than maintain and track all those accounts. Plus, there’s a civil liberties issue in tracking what students look at on the internet, too.

  11. Lance
    Lance July 6, 2009 at 7:05 pm |

    Arkady– Filters as a general proposition have been held constitutional in schools, but the ACLU is doing some good work around the edges: http://writ.lp.findlaw.com/hilden/20090605.html

    Miranda, you’re amazing. Thanks for posting about this. It is very easy to overlook the issues facing young adults in high school. If you have the time, could you try to pull up a few pro-life anti-choice websites at school? I would be quite interested to see if those are blocked too. If they’re discriminating on the basis of viewpoint, it may be worth getting in touch with the ACLU.

    [Disclaimer: I am a lawyer, but this isn't my specialty.]

  12. em
    em July 6, 2009 at 7:10 pm |

    I’m sure several students at your school have googled “websense circumvent” by now.

    Obviously hax are not going to solve the fundamental issue here, which is (need it even be stated) abject stupidity on the part of a certain breed of adult.

    But resisting their stupidity IS noble, vital, and — to the extent that you can get away with it — obligatory. At least, that’s my personal conviction.

    I’ve been caught at this, but never suffered any negative consequences. My Ivy of choice admitted me. Yes, I know, privilege, etc. But still. I’m not trolling or baiting, here — I know this post isn’t going to come across as particularly lucid or well-reasoned or whatever, and if the whole point of posting on the internet is to hear yourself talk and marvel at your own cleverness and insight and watch subsequent commenters do the same, and I’m not confident this content will be thusly received, then why am I posting it? Because I feel passionately about this.

    The internet is one of the most exciting and promising phenomena to have come akong in awhile, and FOR awhile the internet was safe, because only analytical types, I guess, spoke its language, populated it, determined its trajectory and reach. But now idiots are online, too. They comprise a majority of the IRL population. We (and here I am speaking to anyone who feels similarly even though I know many people won’t) cannot let the internet become a democracy. Or, rather, we need to make the internet less democratic, because it’s BEEN a democracy and every citizen has been able to vote and that’s been great, except formerly most of the citizens did not suck and now, increasingly, many do. I celebrate the fact that more poor communities and other formerly marginalized communities have gained access, but peggy hill — this is the archetype, FYI, that is largely responsible for the clumsy censorship you describe — needs to GTFO.

    Pls do not delete this post. This is a feminist issue, moreso than I think most of us can presently comprehend.

    And a popular technique pertaining to websense has been reproduced here:

    http://textsnip.com/7c1268

  13. roses
    roses July 6, 2009 at 7:34 pm |

    My work uses websense too. “Sex education” is a specific category that is blocked. Which is fine for a workplace, but pretty ridiculous if a school is using it.

  14. cordelia9889
    cordelia9889 July 6, 2009 at 8:29 pm |

    Oh, I have fond memories of trying to find an ee cummings poem online at school and getting blocked for looking up pornography. Serious flag word fail.

  15. Hank
    Hank July 6, 2009 at 8:54 pm |

    @mandolin: The school I went to was very small (twenty-three people in my graduating class) and certainly not in a very economically privileged place (main sources of employment being sawmills, logging, and lead mines), yet by the time I graduated, I’m pretty sure that every elementary class had one computer per two children and the rooms the history, English, Jr. High English/History, and such were taught in had one computer for every two children as well along with two or three other computer labs. It might have helped that the school was so small, but my understanding is that they were able to get so much through aggressively seeking grants.

  16. NancyP
    NancyP July 6, 2009 at 9:11 pm |

    For a while, anti-censorship and anti-censorware sites (NOT providing hacks!) were censored by some censorware.

  17. Steph
    Steph July 6, 2009 at 9:18 pm |

    I found this interesting, because I went to a relatively small and affluent public high school, and we had similar web filters that would block, among other things, Change.org (for being a nonprofit, I believe?), Youtube, and anything that resembled social networking (enterprising kids found proxy servers to get on Facebook almost as fast as the software could block them, though). I personally find the first item in particular ridiculous, because while I can understand banning porn or entertainment stuff, I don’t see how me using Change.org during my free period would have been a threat to anyone.

  18. William
    William July 6, 2009 at 10:14 pm |

    I worked at a public high school for a year doing individual therapy and the censorship on the web was pretty odious. Lots of arguments to be made about why it shouldn’t exist, but really thats pretty much academic given that I’ve never met an administrator who was interested in giving up the slightest bit of control.

    That said, I’ve always found it to be pretty satisfying to break regulations that don’t make sense to me. If you have access to a thumb drive you can put together a pretty good (not to mention essentially invisible) work around in the form of portable tor. Its free, its legal, and it isn’t really a hack so much as a work around. It doesn’t leave much in the way of traces and you can take it with you for use on any computer. Perhaps best of all, even if you did get caught your average school official isn’t likely to even think to look at the thumb drive you’ve got and if they happened to they wouldn’t know what they were looking at. Info here: http://portabletor.sourceforge.net/

    Fuck censorship.

  19. tobecontinued
    tobecontinued July 7, 2009 at 12:28 am |

    You know, I was just at the public library in my city and using the computer there, and was pretty surprised to find out that it had a filtering service too. Of course, I found out when I was on this site and following a link. The weird thing was that it said it had unfiltered access for adults, which I am. When it comes public school computer systems, I can at least understand filtering though I’m against it, but it makes no sense to me to have filtering systems on computers in a public city library.

  20. Cactus Wren
    Cactus Wren July 7, 2009 at 6:02 am |

    Good lord, good lord. I thought this went out with the days when AOL would let you start a chatroom called “xHxOxTxTxExExNxGxIxFxSx”, but not one called “BreastCancerSurvivors” (although “TesticularCancerSurvivors” was allowed, as was “HooterCancerSurvivors”).

  21. R
    R July 7, 2009 at 7:41 am |

    I live in Sussex in the UK and you won’t be surprised to hear that many local websites have been blocked in the past because the county ends in -sex.
    So Sussex Police, East Sussex County Council, University of Sussex – all obscene.
    I think most censorship programmes are more sophisticated now but a few years ago it made it difficult for some visitors trying to research the area. So silly.

  22. Bonn
    Bonn July 7, 2009 at 8:46 am |

    I do believe my mom’s grade school gave some kids problems when looking up “sperm whales.” SPERM WHALES. I mean, I know as a kid I had some difficulty feeling comfortable talking about sperm whales, but when you’re researching WHALES it’s probably going to come up (oh shit, what did I just do there? WAS THAT AN UNINTENTIONAL PUN??)

    Anyway, so it’s ridiculous. Maybe the kids don’t even know why “sperm whale” would be an issue. And then that’s going to MAKE it an issue when you have to explain why “sperm” is a dirty, dirty, filthy, terrible word.

    A question just popped up in my mind … which is easier, using the internet at a public high school or in China? Not to equate the two, but I really am just … curious.

  23. William
    William July 7, 2009 at 8:58 am |

    I think most censorship programmes are more sophisticated now but

    The level of sophistication is irrelevant. Any official who would seek to restrict public access to any kind of information for any reason deserves, at a minimum, to be relieved of office and sunned by the community they betrayed. Infringing upon so basic a liberty as speech and press is the kind of action that brings to mind Locke’s talk of “dissolution,” Paine’s radicalism, and the text of the Second Amendment.

  24. ladyiconoclast
    ladyiconoclast July 7, 2009 at 9:07 am |

    I’m a tech at a nyc doe high school, and I hope to challenge this policy.

    ACLU has challenged a similar policy in Tennessee and won:
    http://www.aclu.org/lgbt/youth/39762prs20090604.html

    What I have gotten so far through calls to the central IT department is that individual schools can choose what is blocked or not blocked at their individual school, but the default setting is to block many.
    I know that at my school the following categories are blocked: Alternative Journals, Personal Networking, Sexuality, Pro-Choice, “Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual Interest”, Sex Education and more.

    One notable test, which was done in Tennessee was to check whether PFLAG: Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays is banned, and whether PFOX: Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays is. In Tennessee and in NYC, PFLAG is banned, PFOX is not.

    It sends a pretty plain message which side the webfilter is on.

    If anyone in NYC is concerned about this kind of issue, you should get involved with NYCORE: New York Collective of Radical Educators http://www.nycore.org/

  25. ks
    ks July 7, 2009 at 11:15 am |

    I’m a sub in my local public schools and it’s the same here. I can’t read a lot of left leaning news sites (medial matters, alternet, rhreality check, even salon are all blocked) at work because they run up against the filtering software.

    I also can’t use google translate (or any other translation service that I know of) at work. And I have no idea why that is, because there have been several instances of me being in a classroom with a non-English speaking student who I’m supposed to teach whatever the subject of the day is where having access to a translation engine would have been very helpful.

    I really, really don’t see the point of having the blocking software, though. Sure, some kids will spend all their free time on facebook or youtube, but a lot of others will have access to legitimate information that they may need or want for whatever reason and they can’t get to it now.

  26. William
    William July 7, 2009 at 12:03 pm |

    Sure, some kids will spend all their free time on facebook or youtube, but a lot of others will have access to legitimate information that they may need or want for whatever reason and they can’t get to it now.

    You seem to be under the impression that compulsory education has a primary purpose of teaching rather than discipline and inculcation. Blocking software might get in the way of learning, but thats it’s purpose. It exists to prevent people from learning about certain ideas that the people who put the blocks in place would like them to remain ignorant about. Isn’t that kind of the whole model of uniform education? Eat up most of your day teaching you things that those who might or might not actually give a shit about you have decided are important and grade you based on how well you’ve learned the assigned material? Constantly remind you that if you do not submit, behave, and properly regurgitate you’ll end up a fry cook? Penalize you for infractions, even those occurring off campus during non-school hours, and then warn you that if you are penalized too often you will lose your future? Blocking software is just another way to control the flow of information, another way to remind the students that their purpose is to be passive recipients of the data the school would like to impart. Allowing them to do research would expose them to ideas that haven’t been properly vetted, after all.

  27. chava
    chava July 7, 2009 at 12:28 pm |

    My more computer savvy family tells me that schools tend to buy their filter software from central companies and then not be sufficently technically adept to tailor it–i.e., the NYC DOE may not have elected to censor certain things, but the company they buy from *does* and the DOE is too inept to change it.

    You know, if it is “free time,” why shouldn’t children be able to spend it on Facebook or Youtube?

  28. ks
    ks July 7, 2009 at 8:11 pm |

    William, it is like that to a certain extent. But I’d argue (and I think Miranda would also argue) that it shouldn’t be that way. And as far as any classroom that I’m in charge of (and a lot of other teachers that I know, although I’ll admit that there are a lot more who agree with the status quo), I try my best, as much as I’m able, to make education relevant and useful and at least marginally fun for the students and also encourage them to actually use the brains that the administrations seem to want them to forget they have.

    And that isn’t a terribly well put together paragraph, but I hope you get the gist of what I’m trying to say (physics/math teacher here–writing was never my strong point).

  29. William
    William July 7, 2009 at 9:36 pm |

    William, it is like that to a certain extent. But I’d argue (and I think Miranda would also argue) that it shouldn’t be that way.

    Sure, it shouldn’t be that way. The thing, for me at least, is that I learned back in high school that actually fighting these kinds of battles costs more time and emotional resources than I’m willing to spend for relatively little gain. Sure, I could bang my head against the wall and fight a fight that will ultimately come to very little. Or I could say fuck it, do what I need to do to work around the system, and let the people who made my life that little bit more difficult know that not only do I disrespect their authority, but that they can’t do a thing about it until they figure out how.

    Theres nothing a petty administrator dislikes more than someone who disregards their rules and makes them feel small and ignorant.

  30. Lorelei
    Lorelei July 8, 2009 at 8:45 am |

    William — this works sometimes. it was my strategy of choice in high school until i got my GED when i was 16 and went on to college.

    for some people, it gets them in a lot more trouble than was necessary. for example, a friend of mine who was very aware that school wasn’t for her education, but rather to make her docile, would attend all her classes and learn, but didn’t do her homework. granted, the not-doing-homework thing likely had more to do with being disabled by her mental illnesses and trying to fend off her mother’s attempts to kill her at home, but this is all sort of besides the point, as i recall her just being like ‘i would bother myself to agonize over how little homework i do if i actually thought i was hindering my actual education.’

    anyway, she was eventually kicked out and placed in ‘alternative schooling’ for ‘insubordination.’ not even some sort of failure to thrive category because she wasn’t doing well in school. she found out from a kindly teacher that the staff recommended it because they were afraid she was going to start some sort of ‘student uprising.’ uh, yeah. because don’t you know that if you don’t do your homework and you wear sonic youth tshirts you must be a goddamn anarchist intent on bringing down the education system?

    did i mention that they did this without an IEP meeting and without holding a meeting to inform her why this choice was made, which is apparently against her rights in her state?

    then she was kicked out of alt. schooling because she couldn’t afford new clothes for their dress code and kept being sent home for dress code violations. now she’s homeless (remember the mother trying to kill her?) and can’t get a job because she doesn’t have her HS diploma.

    so, as far as what you said about trying to take down the censor system on the computers, you’re absolutely right, that isn’t the solution. we’d just be band-aiding the real problem, which is the entire education system, as it’s geared towards making our people good workers, not actually educated. HOWEVER, yes, there IS nothing that a petty administrator dislikes more than someone who disregards their rules, they can ALSO be very vindictive motherfuckers, and can put you in some terrible situations.

    then again, i did roughly the same shit in high school (just did high school my way, basically, and found every way to get around their rules to make it less painful for me) and nothing really happened to me. all i’m saying is YMMV and be careful and make sure you cover your ass if shit goes wrong.

  31. Lorelei
    Lorelei July 8, 2009 at 8:46 am |

    well, not you specifically since you’re out of high school for many years now. you know what i’m saying.

  32. sophiefair
    sophiefair July 8, 2009 at 11:14 am |

    Sure, I could bang my head against the wall and fight a fight that will ultimately come to very little. Or I could say fuck it, do what I need to do to work around the system, and let the people who made my life that little bit more difficult know that not only do I disrespect their authority, but that they can’t do a thing about it until they figure out how.

    and sure, that helps you with your problem. but it doesn’t do a damn thing for anyone else coming into that situation after you (especially if they don’t have the same resources/privilege as you in coming up with a “workaround”). i’m not saying you HAVE to try to fix everything. i know you have to pick your battles, same as everyone else. but i hate to think that NO ONE should pick this battle — which is the vibe i’m getting off your comments in this thread. i’m glad that there are teachers and subs and students in this thread that are trying to address this issue.

  33. Meg
    Meg July 8, 2009 at 11:56 am |

    We had a similar problem at my High School (~6 years ago); the web-blocking software blocked the Virginia General Assembly Website because there were laws about things like “guns” and “violence” and “rape.”

    That was all well and good until about five minutes into our first session with the new software, when one of the students realized the Systems Administrator had never set a *password*. The computer savvy kids were through in under two minutes, and they kindly taped instructions under the keyboards for those less intuitively capable with computers. Paying for technology is worthless if you don’t know how to run it, and that’s true for both sides of the blocking argument.

    I think the ACLU has a distinct case when it can be proven that pro-choice websites are blocked but pro-abortion websites aren’t, and that goes for many debates. In many locales, a well placed letter to the editor can do wonders…

  34. Sarah
    Sarah July 8, 2009 at 3:58 pm |

    Don’t forget that the category “sex education” is blocked. It’s a SCHOOL – the fundamental purpose (ostensibly) is education. As I teacher I like to believe this anyway. And these filters apply to teachers as well as students, which makes a mockery of our professionalism. Not to mention that categories like “violence” are blocked – as a history teacher I find this especially problematic.

  35. William
    William July 8, 2009 at 7:13 pm |

    HOWEVER, yes, there IS nothing that a petty administrator dislikes more than someone who disregards their rules, they can ALSO be very vindictive motherfuckers, and can put you in some terrible situations.

    I wasn’t implying that everyone should take my path. It worked well for me, with my temperament, my situation, and my resources. Personally I feel that the best way to damage any system is to foment widespread disregard for the rules and flaunt violations whenever possible, but I get that other people’s milage may vary. I was speaking from my personal experience, if I sounded like I was speaking in general (and, seeing as several people read it way, thats likely) I apologize.

    i’m not saying you HAVE to try to fix everything. i know you have to pick your battles, same as everyone else. but i hate to think that NO ONE should pick this battle — which is the vibe i’m getting off your comments in this thread.

    Well, to be perfectly honest, with my experiences as both a student and as a psychotherapist in the public school system, I do kind of feel that schools are too fucked to fix. I sincerely believe that they are past the point of being salvageable, and that there is very little I (or anyone else) could do to change that. I believe that anything less than burning the whole damned thing to the ground and starting over is just going to perpetuate the gross abuses that I’ve seen time and again. I believe that schools, on balance, do more harm than good. I believe that even the best teachers cannot function in their jobs without colluding daily in the abuse of their students.

    BUT…thats me. Thats my place in the world. When it comes to public education, I am a pessimist. The world needs pessimists, when we do our jobs we keep complicity at bay. At the same time, though, the world needs optimists. The world needs people who hope. Most of all, the world needs people who make different choices. So, even if I think its futile, I’m glad someone is fighting this fight because thats another idea out there in the ether, another possibility.

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