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Schools push to keep network and kids safe

Firewalls and filters aim to block harmful sites and viruses

POSTED: November 3, 2012 11:59 p.m.

As school systems push for stronger, more accessible technology in today’s classrooms, the need for a secure digital landscape becomes increasingly more important.

A portion of that is keeping viruses off of school networks, but a larger, more important part of that initiative is keeping kids safe in their new digital environments.

In 2000, Congress enacted the Children’s Internet Protection Act aimed at protecting children from obscene or harmful content while online. The act requires schools or libraries that receive discounts for Internet access to block websites that are obscene, pornographic or harmful to minors.

Schools are also required to educate children on appropriate online behavior, including interacting with peers on social networks and chat rooms, as well as addressing cyber bullying.

To do this, school put up firewalls and web filters, limiting users’ access, depending on their role in the school, to certain websites and services.

“Basically, we have a series of firewalls,” said Aaron Turpin, Hall County Schools executive director of technology. “It provides access by user rights. On one end of the spectrum, we need to have access for people like school resource officers and school principals who need almost unfettered access. But on the other end of the spectrum, we need to make sure out boys and girls are protected.”

For instance, Turpin said, teachers can access YouTube, while students only have access to the site’s .edu address.

“Making sure our boys and girls, our students, are safe as possible from all the negative things on the Internet is our No. 1 priority,” he said.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one in three children have been exposed to “unwanted sexual material online.” One in 11 has been harassed or bullied online.

“There are people all around the world that don’t necessarily have the best intentions, so what they try and do is try and bounce things that are inappropriate or spyware or malware off of 10, 20, 30 different proxy sites (third party sites),” said Turpin. “So we block all those things.”

Hall County has put up new firewall systems capable of handling thousands of individual users. The system also keeps unwanted users off the network.

And that system is handling a lot of information.

According to Turpin, on Oct. 26, more than 7,500 student personal devices — phones, tablets and laptops — connected to the network within the first 30 minutes of school. The system also hosts more than 10,000 of its own devices.

But protecting the school system’s network was not always proactive.

Keith Palmer, the director of technology for Gainesville City Schools, has been with the system since 1992.

When he came on, he pushed for the system to go online, but said it didn’t come without issues.

“There was a time when a virus would come in and just take us out,” he said. “We’d be out for like a week or so. So we have taken steps with some pretty stringent antiviruses to prevent that.”

And in the age of personal devices, that protection becomes more essential.

“If you have just desktop computers, they never leave the fortress and get outside in the cold, cruel world,” said Palmer, adding the system provides its staff with laptops. “Where, by us giving out laptops, they would go home and bring back viruses and that kind of stuff with them. So this has been a problem we’ve had to address for a long time.”

He said the system has not had to shut down its system in eight or nine years, but it’s a battle that his department has to fight every day.

“It is an issue in schools,” he said. “I don’t think the average person realizes the size of some of the things. They have one or two computers at home; I have 3,500 of them. When something gets loose in the place like that, you’ve got a real problem. So, it’s something that we have to address every single day.”


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