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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Leash Put On Internet Explorers District 81 Spends $1,000 A Month To Filter Out Porn, Hate Speech, Etc.

Scott Harmon’s social studies students were having way too much fun.

He’d asked them to research Ireland on the Internet. Three boys huddled around a computer, giggling and whispering.

Edging closer, Harmon suddenly understood. Instead of studying the rolling hills of Ireland, the boys were ogling the curves of a bikini-clad fashion model.

“Excuse me!” Harmon interrupted. “That’s not Ireland.”

But it was. The students had followed Harmon’s instructions, asking the computer for documents containing the word “Ireland.” Among the files on the Emerald Isle were pictures of model Kathy Ireland - she of Sports Illustrated swimsuit fame.

A click of the mouse and there she was, smiling seductively at the boys in North Central High School’s library.

Spokane School District 81 administrators are hoping to ban barely clothed women from schools with help from a new $1,000-per-month Internet filtering system. In addition, the system screens out hard-core pornography and inappropriate sexual references, educators say.

It also keeps kids from using e-mail that isn’t authorized by the school district, said Joe Austin, the district’s technology coordinator.

Monitoring Internet use is especially critical because a bond passed last month will put an estimated 4,000 new computers in schools, educators say.

The filter package, called Bess, is supplied by N2H2 Inc., a Seattle company that specializes in Internet filtering.

Employees review thousands of new Web sites daily, blocking information such as hate speech and tutorials on committing crimes, making drugs and breaking into computer systems, said Kerri Karvetski, the company’s spokeswoman.

“We use certain keywords to go look for them,” said Karvetski. “We type in the names of porn stars. We pretty much know where to go look for these things.”

N2H2 supplies the equipment, which receives daily updates. District 81 pays for rental and service.

But some teachers, including Harmon, worry the filter creates a form of censorship by blocking kids from Internet sites packed with important information.

“It’s kind of a detriment,” Harmon said. “It slows the process and narrows where they can research.”

Peter Perkins, who teaches social studies at Rogers High School, ran into trouble with the filter - and first learned of its existence - while helping a student research origins of the white supremacy movement.

Most of the Internet sites they wanted to review were blocked.

“The word is censorship. Let’s get it out there,” Perkins said.

“History is littered with offensive ideas,” he said. “The clash of those ideas is part of the currency of what we do. People sometimes need to understand the depth of the hatred and the ideology that’s behind these groups.”

The student’s reaction stung, too, said Perkins. “She said, ‘Don’t they trust you either, Mr. Perkins?’”

A district Internet committee “went through a lot of gnashing of teeth regarding how we could get the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff,” said Kevin Foster, who oversees North Central’s computers and sits on the committee.

The committee is considering giving teachers access codes to override the filter on occasion, Foster said.

Even without codes, clever teachers usually can find ways to get information they want, Foster said.

For instance, the filter won’t allow searches for the keywords “sexually transmitted disease,” Foster said, because searches with the word “sex” are blocked. But students can complete their research by searching for the words “venereal disease.”

Foster said he hopes the new system will help teachers gain the trust of skeptical parents. Some have refused to allow their children to use the Internet at school, fearing they’ll be exposed to pornography.

That creates problems of its own, Foster said.

“That became a real supervision issue for us, keeping track of the short list who couldn’t be on,” he said. “With 1,400 to 1,500 kids moving around a lot, that’s not easy.”

Currently, students must bring permission slips to use the Internet. Administrators may change that policy, allowing kids to sign on unless their parents send notes objecting, said technology coordinator Austin.

School board members will consider that change within the next month, along with adding access codes for teachers, Austin said.

Not all teachers are troubled by the filtering system. Don Story, who teaches math and technology at Salk Middle School, said he finds it works great for curious preteens who have trouble resisting temptation.

But while some kids intentionally go to “curl-your-eyebrow” Web sites, they usually land there accidentally, he said.

Before filtering was installed, Story watched porn scenes flash on a student’s computer when she simply misspelled a keyword.

“There are commercial sites that deliberately make their addresses very, very similar to legitimate sites,” Story said. “These are typically porn sites.”

Now that Web sites are filtered, Story said, he’s more relaxed when students use the Internet.

But not entirely.

“Some of the kids are savvy enough this might just be another challenge for them,” he said. “So I’m not going to let my guard down.” , DataTimes

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