The New York City Board of Education took some heat recently over its systemwide internet filtering application; teachers and students have complained that the program has stymied their legitimate attempts at research on the web.

Norman Siegel, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, also complained in a letter to the Board of Education that “the blocking program sweeps far too broadly.”

The problem appears to stem from the fact that the district implemented the filtering solution, called I-Gear, with one-size-fits-all, company-configured categories—and then failed to communicate its filtering policy effectively with teachers and other stakeholders.

One city teacher told the New York Times that students studying the Middle Ages had been blocked from web sites about medieval weapons—including the American Museum of Natural History—despite the fact that these sites would help students better understand the curriculum.

“The Board of Education has left me high and dry,” Debra Sandella, a fifth-grade teacher at the Manhattan School for Children, told the Times. “It’s a technical world, and if they can’t get access through technology, these children will be at a severe disadvantage.”

Responding to the criticism, the Board of Education said schools and teachers can modify the filter—but it will take up to two months for the board to train school staffs to use the software and modify it as they see fit.

“This is the typical, orderly process of putting new technology in place,” said Chad Vignola, general counsel to the board.

The city recently expanded its internet offerings, thanks to a $100 million federal grant acquired through Project Connect. According to the Board of Education, the grant has allowed for high-speed internet access to all 1,100 city schools, with nearly all of them connected to the web through the board’s central server.

It is that server to which the board installed the I-Gear filtering solution.

Jan Shakofsky, who teaches government and history at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens, said the filter kept students out of the National Rifle Association web site while debating gun control. They found the last chapter of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” blocked, because of a scene in which a woman lets a starving man drink milk from her breast. And students couldn’t research diabetes, because one of the disease’s side effects is erectile dysfunction.

“Kids can’t do their work,” said Shakofsky.

But Vignola said the I-Gear filter “was selected for its flexibility.” For example, in any given school, computers in the library could be programmed so that nothing is filtered out, while computers in individual classrooms or even during certain times of day could be blocked from accessing certain types of material. And while elementary schools might want to block sex education, high schools could allow such material in.

“The turning on and off of any particular feature can be done by the user, a group of users, or it can be done in a classroom,” said Gary Warren, vice president of Symantec, the California-based company that produces I-Gear.

About 7 million students use I-Gear in a variety of school districts, from Fairfax County, Va., to Cleveland, as well as in Canada and Scotland, Warren said.

New York City has the largest school system in the country, with 1 million students in 1,100 schools. The Board of Education has spent $100 million to connect every one of those schools to the internet. Vignola said that training in the use and modification of I-Gear is ongoing.

Gregg Betheil, assistant principal of Martin Luther King Jr. High School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, agreed that there are problems with the filter, but he seemed confident that they could be solved.

“The complaints are real and justified,” he said. “At the same time, they’re short-term. We have a long way to go, but they’ve done an incredible job of getting schools connected to the internet that didn’t have it before.

“What we’re seeing is the Board of Ed moving from the Industrial Age into the Information Age,” Betheil added. “With that goes some growing pains.”

New York City Board of Education
http://www.nycenet.edu

Symantec/I-Gear
http://www.symantec.com/sabu/igear