Students in classrooms, libraries, and cyber cafes from Maine to Malaysia couldn’t wait to download Kenneth Starr’s report to the U.S. House of Representatives the moment it went up on the internet on Sept. 11.

Teachers and librarians reported outbreaks of giggles and guffaws wherever adolescents could pore over the unsavory document. But for school leaders from coast to coast, the Starr Report was nothing to titter about.

Its release by lawmakers in Washington galvanized debate in school systems nationwide about the finer points of internet-content management and whether schools should consider the source when making judgments about questionable information.

The debate was intensified by the widespread availability of the report, both on government and commercial web sites. Demand for the document by young and old alike was so great immediately after its release that internet traffic slowed to a trickle in many regions of the web.

Normally, school officials would be happy to see their kids studying the U.S. House of Representatives web site. Now, with a graphic description of the president’s alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky posted on the site, they’re not so sure.

Yet the 445-page Starr Report also contains historically significant information in which Starr gives possible grounds for impeaching the president.

To officials at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, the posting was further evidence that students must learn how to discern what’s good and useful in the flood of information on the internet.<

“The web is not the sacred cow of information, and all its milk is not pure,” said John O’Neill, director of communications at the $12,000-a-year private school for boys.

The school tries to steer students toward responsible web-surfing. It blocks access to all commercial web sites, and it issues internet “driver’s licenses” only to boys who agree to cruise cyberspace responsibly.

But none of those precautions would prevent students from navigating to the House web site and reading about the Lewinsky affair, O’Neill noted.

The challenge facing all teachers and parents, O’Neill said, is to prepare children for a less innocent, information-saturated world. “There’s nothing coming out in this report that wasn’t on HBO last weekend,” asserted O’Neill.

For officials at the Federal Way School District in Washington state, however, that contention provided little consolation. Superintendent Tom Vander Ark had no trouble deciding the report should be blocked.

“If it isn’t blocked now it will be Monday,” he told the Seattle Times on Sept. 11. “I don’t think there is any risk of any student in our school accessing it.” The graphic nature of the report far outweighs its usefulness in the classroom, he said.

Technology’s role

Officials who decided to block the report from their school computers faced the next question: Would their internet filtering software do the job?

References to oral sex and masturbation almost certainly would cause several commercial filtering programs to block all or parts of the report, said Nancy Willard of the Center for Responsible Use of Information Technologies at the University of Oregon in Portland.

Customers of SurfWatch, for example, found their access to the report blocked in its entirety. Bryant Hilton, a spokesman for the company, said SurfWatch reviewed the report and found that it fit the company’s specific criteria for objectionable material.

Because SurfWatch doesn’t filter sites by keyword, Hilton said, the company had to scour the web and examine all the major news sites to find published versions of the report.

But at The Learning Company, which publishes another filtering solution, CyberPatrol, the gatekeepers saw things differently. “If the U.S. House has determined the American public should have access to this document,” CyberPatrol spokeswoman Susan Getgood told the Associated Press, “it’s not up to The Learning Company or CyberPatrol to filter the content of a government report.”

Several educators noted the irony in the federal government’s posting of the Starr Report, given Congress’s recent efforts to mandate a safer surfing environment for schoolchildren.

“I find it ironic that the very day that this smut was unleashed on the American public and the world via the net, the eRate committee in Congress was having a hearing about filters,” said Josephine Dervan, library media specialist and internet trainer at Strathmore Elementary School in Aberdeen, N.J.

On the same day the Starr Report oozed onto the web, the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications held a hearing titled “Legislative Proposals to Protect Children from Inappropriate Materials on the Internet.” Debate at the hearing focused on pending legislation that would force schools and libraries receiving eRate funds to install filters on their computers.

Debate also centered on another piece of pending legislation, dubbed the Communications Decency Act II. That bill would make it a crime for anyone to post salacious materials on the internet. In the middle of that hearing, lawmakers–who presumably would enjoy sovereign immunity–adjourned for a vote. They had to decide whether to release the Starr Report.

U.S. House of Representatives
http://www.house.gov

Federal Way School District
http://www.fwsd.wednet.edu

SurfWatch
http://www.surfwatch.com

CyberPatrol
http://www.cyberpatrol.com

Strathmore Elementary School
http://www.marsd.k12.nj.us/st/index.htm