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Schools Web blocks raise questions
ACLU opposes censorship of educational websites in Gwinnett County
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Blocking educational websites in public schools could mean legal trouble for some school systems.

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia began conducting a statewide investigation of Internet censoring in public high schools.

"We have gotten requests from all over the state," said Chara Jackson, legal director for ACLU of Georgia. "We look at anything that provides an impermissible block. We do investigations by open records requests."

So far, no complaints have been lodged against the Hall County or Gainesville school systems.

Jackson said most of the complaints that ACLU of Georgia received were about sites blocking nonexplicit, educational websites with resources intended for students of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
She said most schools are probably not aware these "impermissible blocks" exist.

"Sometimes there are good quality, legitimate sites that are blocked," said Aaron Turpin, Hall County Schools director of technology. "We have a very robust filter, and we use a different approach called an opt-in policy."

Websites are blocked in Hall County in compliance with the federal Children's Internet Protection Act.

"We use a highly complex filter that is much more than a simple blocked and unblocked site list," Turpin said. "There are many domain names that we do not block that contain appropriate content at one level, but we do block sub-pages in the domain that do contain inappropriate content."

Turpin said in order for a website to be unblocked, a teacher has to inform the principal, who then looks at the website. If the principal determines the website to be educational and appropriate, the censor is removed at the district level.

"Once a site is unblocked it remains unblocked permanently, unless the site owner changes the content on the pages that once again triggers the filter to block the site again, or there is a request to block the site from a principal," Turpin said. "Just as content on sites change billions of times each day, our filtering software is updated in real time to adjust to these changes."

The school system receives hundreds of such requests every year, Turpin said.

Last year, there were almost 300 sites requested to be unblocked in Hall County, including math education sites and a site with website design templates.

Gainesville City Schools receive about three requests a month, Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. Dyer said teachers could request a site to be unblocked with the system's information technology department.

"Our filter is pretty conservative," she said. "There are some sites that are blocked from us that relate to our work, like some professional sites with newsletters we use. The filter tries to treat those like spam, so we have to hand-correct those."

Lakeview Academy, a private school in Gainesville, has a different approach to Internet use. Lakeview students in the sixth through 12th grades are able to use laptops, each with a login and unique IP address that can be customized to which sites are available.

"Most of the adult content is blocked, and anything that promotes hate or discrimination would be blocked," said Connie White, Lakeview's director of technology. "We set up general categories at the beginning of the year to decide what we're going to allow and what we're not."

Parents can also decide what level of website filtering students have when they bring their laptops home. White said both parents and students undergo Internet safety training and learn how to use the Internet to their benefit.

She said Lakeview does have the ability to block and unblock sites depending on student feedback.

"Sometimes things are miscategorized," White said. "If the kids come up and say, ‘we really need this,' we can unblock it. And teachers have access to almost everything."

Gwinnett County is under investigation by ACLU of Georgia for blocking certain LGBT sites at Brookwood High School in Snellville.

"I've been using my school computer to organize (Gay-Straight Alliance) events and I found some of the sites were blocked," said Nowmee Shehab, a senior at Brookwood who brought the issue to light. "Gwinnett County issued a statement yesterday but I don't think it's been resolved."

Jackson said when ACLU of Georgia is contacted to investigate a claim, it sends a letter to the school superintendent.

She said the investigations will continue "in the vein of advocacy," as the censors could violate First Amendment rights.

ACLU of Georgia officials are not sure what the consequences will be for schools that do not remove blocks from sites after the investigations are complete.

"It'll depend," Jackson said. "We might have to consider legal action, but we hope that it won't come to that."

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