10/13/97 Public schools grapple with Internet porn blocks

CANTON, Ohio (BP)--It was an odd mix with eight pastors, a public school computer and pornographic Internet sites.

Richard Wingerter had invited local church leaders to a test of computer software at a high school in Canton, Ohio.

Wingerter, an elected school board member and Baptist layman, got some triple-X Internet addresses from a computer technician and started typing.

But a message appeared instead of pictures.

"Violation."

"Those addresses were blocked," Wingerter explained. "This latest equipment has really shut the whole thing down."

Officials in Stark County installed X-Stop, a software program that blocks offensive sites on the Internet's World Wide Web by specific addresses. They instituted the filtering protection after a junior high school teacher gave students access to on-line pornography last year.

As more public schools hook up to the Internet, they also face the problem of on-line pornography. Some use software to block the material. Others refuse under the guise of free speech.

Ohio's 600 school districts have Internet access available from the state level. Stark County has an educational service center that supplies the Internet to 28 of those school districts. X-Stop protection covers 10,000 computer terminals and 90,000 students in the 28 districts.

But other school leaders in Ohio haven't followed the example. Wingerter can look from his office and see two districts just miles away which won't install the equipment.

"We've made the commitment," Wingerter said. "Others could do it.

"It boggles my mind why they won't."

Officials from X-Stop have identified 47 different categories of undesirable material on the Internet, encompassing 90,000 sites focusing on porn, hate groups, suicide and bomb making.

The X-Stop system uses a computer group called a "mud crawler" to identify each undesirable web site by address to increase accuracy.

"We're in this because we feel a moral obligation," said Reed Fisher, communications director for the company, based in Anaheim, Calif.

The American Family Association endorses X-Stop. "They not only block the porn, they block the chat room conversations," said Pat Trueman, with the AFA. "It's foolproof as far a as I can see."

"Without blocking technology or a closed Internet system, children are at risk of sexual exploitation on-line," said Donna Rice Hughes with Enough is Enough, an organization in the fight against pornography.

Enough is Enough recently warned parents against Internet permission forms that release school officials from liability.

"They think it's like the field trip waver," said Shyla Welch, another Enough staffer. "You need to contact your school system and find out what they're doing."

Enough is Enough has framed a response letter parents can use for the Internet permission forms to encourage schools to provide prevention from the Internet's dark side.

The response letter notes in part, "I appreciate the opportunity for children to use the Internet for research and educational purposes. I would be abdicating my responsibility as a parent, however, if I signed an Internet Use Policy without knowing that protection is firmly in place for my child, and other children, from Internet dangers. Those of us responsible for the safety of children must recognize there are two clear and present dangers to children on the Internet: online predators' easy access to children, and children's easy access to pornography."

Enough is Enough can be contacted (703) 278-8343 in suburban Washington.

Said Hughes, "Porn-blockers and closed systems allow children to benefit from educational opportunities on the Internet while protecting them from sexual exploitation online."

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, there are 46 million students in the public schools of this country.

"It is up to the districts to include language for the use of filters," said Michael Wessely of the National School Board Association. "At this point it does not appear to be a common practice."

Penny Lancaster, a mother and second-grade teacher, didn't wait for school involvement in Spokane, Wash.

She wrote school district leaders in her area, noting, "Installing a filtering system will allow you to implement your appropriate use policy without having to deal with infractions."

She added, "Teachers cannot be expected to monitor every screen every minute, nor should they be expected to deal with the damage which has been done after the exposure."

Several school districts in the area now have plans to install computer filters.

Sue McNutt got a similar reaction in Omaha, Neb. She's a mother of two in public schools who worked in business management with a web site developed several years ago.

She saw the potential harm with the Internet and asked school officials if they needed help in writing an Internet use policy.

"They weren't progressing," McNutt recounted. The superintendent was polite but wrote guidelines without filters. McNutt went to school board meetings and succeeded in stopping the deficient policy four times. The process took months.

School officials finally gave in and permitted software blocks in area schools.

The Omaha school district has 43,000 students. McNutt was alone.

"This is my mission," she said. "My ultimate goal would be for all schools to filter the Internet."

McNutt's family now lives in Fort Worth, Texas. She helps other parents with Internet problems in public schools and can be reached at (817) 514-0234 or e-mail, mcnutt@flash.net.

Filtering policies vary across the country. The Rice School in southwest Houston doesn't use filters. According to a story in the Houston Chronicle, school officials think it would block educational web sites.

"The issue doesn't go away for us," said Stephen Johnson, the school's technology coordinator. "We'll be continually challenged."

Each year North Carolina officials distribute a free copy of Surfwatch blocking software to schools, said Elsie Brumback with the state department of education.

New Mexico officials encourage a combination approach, said Kurt Steinhaus, assistant superintendent of information services. Officials promote blocking software at the local level, acceptable use policy statements signed by parents and teacher observation.

"Filters work to some extent, but you can't be sure that kids won't see objectionable material," said Gennie Wells with the American Association of School Administrators. "I don't think anything can replace adult supervision."

You can avoid the struggle in your area with several steps:

-- Investigate the policy of your local school district.

-- Examine the acceptable use forms. "Read it carefully," said Enough is Enough's Hughes.

-- Consult the experts. Staff members at Enough can direct you to the right help.

-- Voice your opinion. School officials listen.

"It's something you cannot give up on if you believe in this," said McNutt.

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