Internet creates a cat-and-mouse game between schools, students
Jan. 14, 2012 at 10:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 13, 2012 at 7:14 p.m.
The day their son ran away from home, Pamela Toni and Christopher Fritz confronted the then 15-year-old about meeting people online.
The Calhoun County High School student didn't try to hide it. He'd met friends on the computers at school, he told his parents, just before fleeing.
In the coming days, the parents would access their son's Internet records from the school, hoping to gain insight into his whereabouts. Although his web use at their home was strictly monitored, the school's Internet seemed to provide their son greater access to people the parents didn't know.
It seemed the more they learned about their son's habits, the more they still needed to find out.
"We didn't have any idea he had any emails," Fritz said, not long after his son returned from an 18-day disappearance. "We don't have a clue who he talks to. ... We still have no clue who he knows."
Even technology directors in Crossroads school districts readily admit they don't - and can't - know everything students are accessing on the Internet. Filters aren't foolproof ways to block inappropriate sites, and regardless, students can be pretty savvy at getting around the filters.
So for districts, it becomes defense strategy against the ever-expanding worldwide web, and schools are left constantly trying to balance providing access to important, educational materials, while preventing access from dangerous or inappropriate websites.
"Thousands of websites come up every day. It's unreal," Marcus Martinez, Calhoun County school district's technology director, said.
Fritz and Toni supplied to the Advocate the records of their son's Internet use in the two days before he ran away. He appears to have accessed - or at least tried to access - hundreds of websites during school hours.
Google.com was by far his most frequented site, and second on the list was YouTube, which the report generated from the school says was blocked each of the 232 times he tried to access it.
Other sites identified as chat or dating sites appeared to have been blocked multiple times, too. Just attempting access to those blocked sites is against the district's Internet use policy, a form that all students who use the Internet must sign.
Some sites categorized as "violence" and "criminal activity" were also blocked, but Toni and Fritz's son was able to look at one website 42 times - StupidTeenCrimes.com - which recounts stories of school shootings and other crimes committed by teenagers.
"The school really needs to know what kids are doing. If there's a child trying to go on a chat site, dating services, gun sites, the school should be aware of that," Fritz said. "They're 10 steps behind and kids are 20 steps ahead."
His son's records shed light on a cat-and-mouse game all school districts face when it comes to providing Internet access for students.
Cat and mouse
"It's a constant thing. As one group figures out how to circumvent, the other group figures out how to block it," said Randy Williams, technology director in the Victoria school district.
The schools interviewed for this article - Victoria, Calhoun and Goliad school district - all use filtering systems that are designed to block websites that include things like pornography, chatting, games and social networking. The systems update automatically, with inappropriate sites added daily to the blocked category.
Beyond that, each school can access individual student records categorized by a login ID. They can also gather comprehensive reports to include things like the most frequent Internet users and trends students may be using to bypass filters.
Some students bring to school thumb drives to upload programs that allow them to use a proxy server to access prohibited material, Williams said. Others research tricks at home and share their discoveries with their friends, Martinez said.
For example, the Calhoun student was able to access four times ForgotMyBooks.com. The site appears to provide a way to bypass content filters, according to its homepage description.
"Sometimes, it seems like a legitimate site, at least on paper it does. So there's some trial and error at least as far as gathering websites," Martinez said.
Each school district must comply with the federal Child Internet Protection Act, which requires them to adopt an Internet policy for their schools.
In Victoria, the filtering system meets the basic requirements of the Internet protection act, while each campus determines via a filtering committee additional security for its students. If a teacher requests a site be blocked, the technology department usually blocks it promptly. If a teacher requests to have a site opened, however, the filtering committee must approve the access.
Victoria school district students can use a district email address, as well as enter outside email sites, like Gmail and Yahoo.
Calhoun and Goliad schools use a secure email system called Gaggle.net, and allow access to outside email sites, too.
Calhoun and Goliad schools don't have filtering committees, but they also keep an ear to what teachers recommend be blocked and allowed.
Goliad school district perhaps has the most laissez-faire approach to Internet access. About 680 students from seventh to 12th grades have school-issued Macintosh computers, which they use to access the Internet at school and at home.
During school, a good number of sites, like streaming video and music sites, are blocked simply because of limited bandwidth, said Goliad's technology director, Anna White. After school, though, email and social networking are opened up, and filters become more lenient.
Each morning, White receives a report called a "suspicious query," that alerts her to sites students have been accessing.
By allowing and then monitoring greater access, the district can keep a more stringent eye on student needs.
It's a strategy that can prove to be a nod at intervention, for example when a student is found to have researched about suicide or the warning signs of depression, White said.
Schools, it seems, can also be on the offensive when it comes to Internet safety.
"Most students have their own Internet devices already - phones and iPads," White said. "The main thing is we need to give as much guidance as we can at that age because this is where they need to be trained."
The Texas Education Agency requires school districts to teach students about Internet safety, social media etiquette and cyber bullying.
Calhoun school district in particular has taken the extra step to provide safety training to the community, as well as students, Martinez said.
While technology departments are never going to tire from blocking content deemed inappropriate for students, much of the responsibility remains on the front-lines: the classroom.
"Good content management always goes back to good classroom discipline," Martinez said.
The Internet is a tool that will be used to enhance education from here on out, Martinez said, so the only option is to adapt.
"The vast majority of students are greatly benefiting from" the Internet," White said. "I don't think we can go back. I don't think we want to go back."
Although Toni and Fritz signed a permission form allowing their son to access the Internet at school, Fritz said he wouldn't do it again.