As the deadline nears for certifying their compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)—which requires schools to use some sort of internet filtering technology as a condition of receiving certain eRate discounts—school administrators from across the country are taking many different approaches to the law.

Some are evaluating new filtering products, while others are holding town meetings to discuss their schools’ internet safety policies. At least a few strongly principled districts are forgoing the requirements altogether, chosing to give up eRate funding rather than use web filters. All can make use of the eSchool News “CIPA Survival Guide” (see link below).

Under the terms of the eRate, any school that receives discounted rates for “internet access, internet service, or internal connections” must certify by Saturday, Oct. 27, that it complies with the provisions of CIPA or is in the process of complying. The provisions also require schools to enact internet safety policies and hold a public school board meeting at which CIPA compliance is discussed.

In defiance of the law, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has elected to ban all internet filtering software from the city’s public libraries. San Francisco libraries could lose $20,000 in eRate funding as a result, but local officials insist that CIPA unfairly limits free speech.

“Internet access that the library provides is often used by folks from different ethnic communities who may not have computers in their own homes,” said Supervisor Mark Leno. “That’s where the free-speech issue is especially significant and unfair.”

City officials aren’t alone in their assessment; both the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association have filed suit against the library portion of the law, calling it unconstitutional. But these lawsuits would have no bearing on whether schools would have to comply.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ruled that local communities have the authority to decide which filtering products, if any, allow their schools to comply with the regulation. This flexibility means that schools are able to tailor their own solutions, sometimes without the help of a prepackaged filter or monitor.

“We feel [we’re] probably in compliance if we have a thorough acceptable-use policy, filter some sites we know are inappropriate, and follow through with supervision and consequences,” said Sue Maiers, technology coordinator for McLeod West Independent School District in Brownton, Minn.

Not purchasing a new software product allows McLeod West to save money. “With no money for even upgrading from our old Pentium I [computers], it is crazy to spend our budget on filtering software if we are already monitoring student access effectively,” Maiers said.

For schools that are evaluating new solutions, the choices can be confusing. As a glut of new and existing filtering companies compete for the K-12 dollar, school leaders find themselves sorting through an array of choices. By eSchool News count, more than three dozen companies now offer filtering or monitoring products aimed at the K-12 market. This development is seen as positive by some industry experts.

“In general, competition is always good, because it gives [schools] more options,” said Sara Fitzgerald, project director for the Consortium for School Networking’s Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse project. But Fitzgerald also warns that schools must beware of Johnny-come-lately companies that didn’t exist before the law was passed. Choosing filtering software should be done with care to minimize the risk inherent in the number of new providers for the education market. Fitzgerald recommends that school officials “come up with a checklist of questions” and “work up a matrix of issues” that will help them screen software to find the best fit with their needs. A sample checklist is available on the Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse web site (see link below).

Fitzgerald also recommends that school officials look to their peers to help them determine which solution is best. Companies should be able to provide a list of references to help in this process. “Ask the companies what other districts have adopted their solution,” she said.

Additionally, Fitzgerald suggests that school leaders compare their needs with those of peer districts with similar cultures, taking into account factors such as curriculum needs, teachers’ comfort level with the internet, and how children will use web sites. Internal professionals, including the technology director, teachers, and curriculum administrators, will play an important part in the process.

One factor schools should be sure to consider is the degree to which a solution can be tailored to a wide range of curriculum needs. For this reason, Governor Mifflin School District in Shillington, Pa., chose a filtering product that could be customized for each of the district’s campuses.

“One of my campuses is a K-3 facility; another is K-6. The main campus involves students in grades 7-12. I can work with administrators and the technology committee to adjust and exempt [web site addresses] based on curricular needs,” said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the district.

Whatever solution is adopted, it’s important to have support from district stakeholders. Fitzgerald encourages districts to foster “buy-in from community and parent leaders” for the solution ultimately adopted. Much of this buy-in can be gained during school board meetings.

Bringing the policy to the community for discussion causes little difficulty for most schools.

“Since we had already included the required CIPA components in our previous documents and district practices, there was little discussion once the [policy’s] format change was explained. No debate or controversy on this one,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas.

Governor Mifflin’s Becker also reported a smooth meeting process, with “no discussion from the community” and the only questions coming from school directors.

Low-tech solutions should not be overlooked. Gary Beach, publisher of CIO Magazine and founder of Tech Corps, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve education through technology, advocates writing and strictly enforcing an acceptable-use policy, drawing on common-sense measures to keep students away from objectionable content.

“Turn the monitors around” so that all can see the activity, he said. “Peers rather than products are going to be the most powerful deterrent” to unacceptable use of the web.

Because the CIPA requirements are new to the eRate funding process, some kinks will have to be worked out, even for the best-prepared district. “We are taking this year as a growth year,” said Becker.

Links:

CIPA Survival Guide
http://www.eschoolnews.com/features/cipa

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse
http://www.safewiredschools.org

Tech Corps
http://www.techcorps.org