By Lilith Flowers, Kaitlyn Kelley and Sophia Nguyen
The excessive internet filtering policies at Summit Public Schools: Tahoma are detrimental to a productive learning environment. Both teachers and students have voiced their concerns. Students will not be prepared for the distractions of an unfiltered internet, which is a problem that has grown as technology develops.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 35 percent of all public schools had internet access in 1994, and schools across the nation quickly followed suit. When asked about how schools decide whether or not to provide internet access, Mike Hiestand, Senior Legal Counsel to the Student Press Law Center, said, “Thankfully most schools have, and I don’t know any schools that say no internet access whatsoever.” Internet access is a gateway for students to controversial issues and new information.
However, Jonathan Stewart, Summit Tahoma executive director, said, “Our top priority is to protect the safety of our students.” In 2000, Congress shared the same opinion when they passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act. For schools, CIPA states that “protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors).” Although CIPA has kept students safe, the law is up to the interpretation of administrators and local government officials, which might not be suitable for every student.
For Summit Tahoma, the filtering system is based on CIPA, which determines what content public schools are required to block. Margaret Chi, who is in charge of GoGuardian for Summit Public Schools, stated that “anything related to CIPA is on the blocked category list by default. The list then evolves based on teacher and school leader requests.” Students cannot directly dispute blocked keywords, which might be a misjudgment of the students’ maturity on the administrative side.
In addition, Eileen Kim, a Summit Tahoma history teacher and senior class mentor, believes internet filtering should be situational, depending on the age of the student. “If you are too young and immature, certain things need to be restricted. If you are at least a senior in high school, … you’re mature enough to make your own choice,” Ms. Kim said. Teachers have some responsibility for the growth and nurturing of young adult students.
“That’s part of education: being open to the world and all the things the world has, both the good and the bad, but in a meaningful and intentional way that’s age-appropriate,” Ms. Kim said. Students have access to more information than entire generations before them. Ms. Kim also mentioned that students need structure to properly handle the information they are given.
When prompted on why content blocks disrupt our education, Tahoma junior Florence Viado replied: “If the adults want us to take on responsibilities and act like adults, then they should treat us like them.” Each student can handle the internet differently, and high school is where we are educated on how to use the internet appropriately.
Furthermore, one broad content blocking system will not be effective or helpful for every student. Tahoma sophomore Ethan Farro shared, “I am slowed down by internet filtering, and a lot of resources and songs are unnecessarily blocked because the criteria is way too broad. It seems like the filters are designed to punish everyone.”
We asked Ron Johnson, Tahoma drama teacher, about how internet filtering might help or hinder students. Mr. Johnson said, “I honestly don’t have an answer for that because every student is different.” Mr. Johnson added that in some conditions, students might be struggling and need something like music to cope. Unfortunately, for those struggling students, their coping mechanism might have been blocked.
Most blocked websites and keywords are justifiable. Summit tech team member Vincent Wang commented on the urgency of blocking a distraction: “If it gets to the point where it’s spreading and disrupting schoolwork …, we will block it without hesitation,” Mr. Wang said. Conversely, some websites are blocked without having disrupted the learning process.
In an online survey sent out to all Tahoma students, many brought up unnecessarily blocked websites and keywords that have already or might become a hindrance to the learning process. Some responses included “various sites provided on the PLP,” “programming based sites,” and “psychology sites.” Tahoma junior Keith Ng stated, “Comedy is blocked on YouTube. Most talk show hosts are listed under ‘comedy’ [and] discuss very real topics that we should be aware of.”
Teachers and principals of public schools must be wary of the difference between blocking distracting material and censoring when filtering content. As a legal consultant with the Student Press Law Center, Mr. Hiestand emphasized that blocked websites may not be blocked due to the content or opinions provided on a site unless that material is a threat to the students. “The First Amendment restricts censorship by government officials,” Mr. Hiestand said.
Students have the right to freedom of speech and are given the ability to advocate for themselves. We wanted to know the students’ opinions, so we sent out a survey to all 335 Summit Tahoma students. 117 students replied, and 70 percent of students who answered our survey described their experience with internet filtering at Tahoma as negative.
Mr. Johnson discussed how internet filtering has interfered with his teaching. When he would assign students to find scripts online, a majority of the sites were blocked. “So my assignment is ‘Everybody go out and get a monologue. Here are the sites,’ and five minutes later we can’t get any monologues, and we can’t go to the website,” Mr. Johnson said. “So I have to find ways around it and do a lot more work to get them the scripts they need.”
Moreover, Mr. Johnson believes students and teachers should deliberate with the administration about the blocked content. He added that students should be notified of what is blocked; then, both students and teachers are mindful, and they can plan around it.
The filtering system is more obstructive than productive for the classroom environment. “When it all comes down to it, we as teachers we work for the students. That’s something that gets lost. They’re not here for us. We’re here for them,” Mr. Johnson said. Teachers have a responsibility to teach students to be socially conscious as well as academically adept.
Throughout a student’s time in school, they are exposed to many controversial debates including the March For Our Lives and Black Lives Matter movements. However, the content blocks are obstructive to the education of students because students are unable to access material related to large-scale movements affecting people throughout the nation.
Tahoma journalism teacher Liz DeOrnellas commented on how internet filtering has become a disturbance in the classroom. “The day-to-day…has been frustrating, particularly when it came to March For Our Lives stuff, and it’s been really disappointing to see how much of the advocacy work is blocked,” Ms. DeOrnellas said. “I think more than anything, that is what has personally bothered me.”
If students are shielded from content deemed distracting or inappropriate, they will not be prepared for college and adulthood, which is fairly ironic considering that Summit Tahoma is a college preparatory school. Students lose their ability to manage their own time and maintain self-control when something else does it for them.
When asked about the effectiveness of content blocks, Mr. Wang commented, “We always get reports that a student has found a loophole.” Students waste time on finding workarounds, which detracts from the efficiency of internet filtering. Students will only stay on task if they are taught to, not if they are forced to.
Internet filtering obstructs teachers’ lesson plans more than they help students focus and learn. Internet filtering should support education, not restrict it. Schools must change their approach to education because students live in a different environment than 10 or 20 years ago. As the generation raised alongside the internet, we have a responsibility to use the tools we have been given to our advantage.
Featured image (at the top of this post): Summit Tahoma’s content filtering system blocked the March For Our Lives website when Tahoma Freshman Kent Williams tried to access it for a journalism article.