Censors and Sensiblility

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Students in a computer graphics class at Century High School in Santa Ana sit down at a computer, log on to the Internet and try to get applications for college scholarships.

They are denied access, but not because of their test scores, grade point averages or missed deadlines.

They can't get the information because the district uses a software program that filters out certain sites and key phrases on the Web.

In addition to obvious profanity, words such as "sports," "finance" and "entertainment" are banned. That means no immediate results during the recent Winter Olympics. No early reports about Asia's financial fiasco. And no financial aid information.

In classrooms throughout the Southland, students who get online are blocked from seeing sexually graphic or drug-related material--that's a given.

Yet a growing number of students are being cut off from benign sites--such as CNN, USA Today and ESPN--because "kids should not be using the computers for fun," Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Al Mijares said.

"Kids should be focused on their task," he said. "That task is to be educated--not entertained."

Santa Ana's policy is rooted in a dilemma facing school districts nationwide. It pits educators' desire to make kids Internet-savvy against parental demands to block out material deemed inappropriate.

School officials and librarians are finding themselves under increasing pressure to assume the uncomfortable role of moral monitor. Nearly a dozen state and federal bills are poised to ban the commercial distribution of sexual information to youngsters, as well as material deemed "harmful to minors."

Meanwhile, software developers, seeing potential profits, have come up with solutions that promise to purify what children see on the Net. But that technology has limitations.

Along the way, say critics, a child's ability to become computer-literate is being compromised.

"Children have a right to access this digital culture freely, as long as they can access it safely and responsibly," said media critic Jon Katz, author of "Virtuous Reality."

"For the first time, our children have the ability to be intellectually free. Parents can no longer control the information that reaches their children, and that terrifies a lot of people."

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When it comes to kids and the Internet, educators are often vigilant in their quest to keep online smut away from curious youngsters. Sometimes they have good reason to be suspicious, as administrators at the Pasadena Unified School District learned earlier this year. In February, Pasadena officials discovered that some members of the staff were browsing through pornographic sites in labs where students usually studied.

For Pasadena, Santa Ana and thousands of schools nationwide, the way to control content in the classroom is through the use of software filters.

Such programs were first marketed in 1995. Billed as a way to empower parents and avoid restrictive federal legislation, the software was hailed as a way to keep children away from sexually explicit or racially offensive online material.

Though each filter is different, most work by scanning the text of a particular Web site and searching for groups of words that could be associated with certain subjects.

If any of the words pop up anywhere on a Web page--in any context--the person can't see the site.

Clearly, the technology isn't perfect. Software experts note that some programs, when used to cut out sites that use the word "sex," will block everything from pornography to information about the town of Middlesex, Conn.

"There's one that cut out the word 'couples' because of possible sexual connotations. Turns out the software also blocked PGA sites, because Fred Couples' name kept popping up," said David Banisar, a spokesman for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "Word choices used in filtering systems range from incredibly arbitrary to totally moronic."

The Palo Alto Unified School District in the heart of Silicon Valley shuns the filters for the same reason Santa Ana uses them--to avoid lawsuits filed by angry parents. After reviewing several filtering programs last year, officials decided to forgo them because of technical inconsistencies.

The software gave parents a false sense of security and made the district legally vulnerable, said Nancy Palmer, coordinator of educational technology for the Palo Alto district.

"Porn sites were still getting through," Palmer said. "At a certain point, we realized that even good technology couldn't substitute for good supervision."

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Without question, Santa Ana's setup is among the most restrictive in the region.

Students and teachers get access to the Internet through a proxy server, a machine that automatically bans all material deemed objectionable by the district.

The computer system also uses a software program called Web Tracker, which purports to block inappropriate material from students accessing the Net from any of Santa Ana's 48 campuses.

The system makes no distinction between what's appropriate for a high school student and what works for a kindergarten class. So access to a Web site must befit everyone, district officials said.

The result: Huge chunks of information are inaccessible.

Coaches at the high schools say they can no longer get into the University of Notre Dame's Web site--which has an extensive football and weightlifting training program--because it falls under the banned "sports" category. Math instructors say they are cut off from information about Wall Street--which they once used to show how to figure out percentages--because the filter picks up on references to the blocked subjects of money and finance.

Such information shouldn't be blocked, Mijares acknowledged. But it's better for schools to err on the side of scholastic control than student freedom, he said.

"Whenever you're dealing with moral or ethical issues, this community is very conservative," Mijares said. "We have to reflect that. . . . Who knows what could happen if we don't keep all our checks and balances in place?"

The Santa Ana staff can get access to some blocked sites. To do so, employees must first file a request with their school principal, Mijares said. The principal then reviews the site and, if he or she approves, sends the request to district offices. Administrators take a look and make the final decision.

District employees say the process takes only a couple of days, though teachers say they have sometimes waited up to a month.

"The Internet is now a useless tool for us," said Bob Halford, the Century High graphic arts teacher whose students couldn't get into the scholarship sites until Halford went through the process of requesting that the site be unblocked.

"Why is it my students can get to the Catholic Church's site," he said, "but they can't read stories in USA Today?"

With such an emotionally charged issue, it may be difficult to carve out a fair solution.

As an educational tool, the Internet serves as a natural medium for teaching independent thought and intellectual exploration. Indeed, politicians campaigning on the "smart education" platform often tout the Net's vast wealth of instructional resources.

But here's the catch: Scholars are starting to make policy decisions based on a community's perception of a threat, rather than on one that has been documented.

Mijares says no complaints of children accessing pornography from a Santa Ana school have been filed with the district office.

Nationally, more schools are taking a cautious stance. The National Education Assn. and other groups, when advising schools on the pros and cons of filters, have relied largely on anecdotal evidence.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, use of filters was not widespread until recently because, "with an area as varied as ours, the community standards varied too greatly," said Andy Rogers, the district's director of instructional technology.

But the district changed its attitude after community figures expressed concern in recent months. Today district officials are building an electronic firewall that will filter out pornographic sites.

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The business community touts the idea of a "family-friendly" cyberspace because it could mean big bucks: more consumers buying computers, more users signing up for Internet service, more hungry shoppers willing to pay for products online.

A coalition of technology and media companies, led by Walt Disney Co. and Microsoft Corp., met in December to devise a universal rating system for Web sites. But technical limitations and conflicting attitudes about what qualifies as "youth-appropriate" stymied the group.

Even without a standard, software makers still sold an estimated $14 million in filters last year, according to Mary Wardley, an analyst with the research group International Data Corp. Over the next three years, sales of filtering products are expected to grow to more than $75 million.

Legislators, too, have jumped on the promise of a G-rated Internet.

Undaunted by the death of the Communications Decency Act last year, six states have mandatory filtering bills pending. New Mexico recently passed a law that makes it a crime to disseminate indecent materials to minors by computer.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee recently passed a bill that would ban the commercial distribution of pornography to youngsters, and another that forces schools and libraries to install filters in order to receive federal money.

"If you want the money, you play by our rules," said Maury Lane, spokesman for Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), co-sponsor of the federal filtering bill. "This is a way for the government to make sure schools are doing their job."

Pro-filter camps insist that the occasional lockout of acceptable sites is a fair price to pay to protect their children and maintain local community standards.

"With the software filters, it's school money being used on school property during the school day," said Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA who specializes in free speech and cyberspace law. "Constitutionally, the choice to use a filter in a public classroom is protected."

Yet critics say kids have a moral right to access computers and online content--all of it. In the emerging digital age, the Net has become their means of attaining modern literacy.

To offer access--then block significant portions of it-- contradicts the scholastic ethos of preparing children for the future, said media critic Katz.

"If kids want to see some- thing--entertainment, sports, porn, whatever--they're going to figure out a way to circumnavigate the filter," Katz said. "If you try to block information through filters, all you're teaching kids is how to defy authority."

P.J. Huffstutter can be reached via e-mail at p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

* Are some schools going too far in protecting kids from inappropriate

Web sites?

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