Internet Access at School: What is Appropriate?

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Internet Access at School: What is Appropriate?
We examine the issue of Internet access in public schools, particularly in light of recent allegations from a father that his daughter was allowed to visit online dating websites from her school during class hours.
Technology is being used in schools to enhance the academic experience, with a wealth of research resources offered in “real time.” However, access to the Internet also comes with its own myriad of concerns, particularly when it is children in control of the navigation process. One recent incident - where a girl was dating online while at school - exemplifies the need for discussion and action when it comes to keeping children safe on the Internet while they are in school.

Girl Finds Online Dating on School Computer
 
A 17-year-old girl in the Rochester Public School District got more than she bargained for when she went on her school computers recently. The John Marshall student found the online dating website Meetme.com during class time. According to a report at My FOX 47, the young woman made contact with a number of men from the website, many of whom wanted to have sex with her.
 
The student’s father said that because his daughter has special needs, as well as the mental functioning of an 11 year old, the girl’s Internet time is closely monitored at home. However, no one appeared to notice that this student had accessed the online dating site, or that she was sharing personal information like her cell phone number with others visiting the network.
 
Her father told the news station that he realized what had happened when he noticed his daughter had suspicious activity on her cell phone.

“She had pornographic pictures on there and she had befriended 175 people over the age of 20,” the girl’s father said. “Scary. And the only way she did it was at school.”
 
The superintendent of Rochester Schools, Michael Munoz, told FOX 47 that while the district uses a filter to block inappropriate sites from students, Meetme.com was not a website they were familiar with or one that was blocked. Munoz said the site is now blocked from students at the school, and this particular student will be monitored at all times in the future.
 
“This is one we weren’t familiar with,” Munoz explained. “This is something we realize we’re going to have to probably get online ourselves and do a little search and see what pops up. If there is something that’s inappropriate for our students, we’ll have to block that.”
 
However, the explanation did little to ease the worries of this particular parent, who told FOX 47, “To be able to access something at school that basically gives access to predators, pedophiles…to my daughter – shame on Rochester.” 
 
Pros and Cons of Internet Use
 
WebMD reported a number of years ago that Internet access can both help children and become a danger to them. The website cited a number of potential risks children may encounter during their online exploration, including:
 
       ·         Access to self-harm (cutting) websites
       ·         Foul language in chat rooms
       ·         Information about sex
 
While some of these websites could prove useful to students, offering information and support, they can also expose students to concepts and ideas they are not mature enough to handle.
 
Despite the risks associated with Internet use, research also shows the benefits of Internet access for students. According to a study at Michigan State University, students who had Internet access at home had higher reading test scores and grade point averages than those who did not have the same access. Math scores were the same for both sets of students. Those who used the Internet the most did not necessarily have higher grades and scores than those who spent less time online, indicating that more is not necessarily better when it comes to the Internet.
 
How Much Monitoring is Necessary?
 
The website for the National Conference of State Legislatures lists the laws regarding Internet use by minors in public venues like schools and libraries. The Federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, which was enacted by Congress in 2002, requires public libraries that receive federal funding through special grants to certify that they have filters in place for Internet use by minors. The filters should eliminate access to “obscenity, child pornography and other material harmful to minors.” In addition, 25 states have filtering laws, requiring publically funded schools or libraries to have filters in place.
 
Despite the laws governing Internet use by children, some argue that current restrictions are not enough, while others say censorship of Internet use is a dangerous element in a free country. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is especially concerned about censorship of LGBT websites that can help students find resources and support for their sexual identity. The website for the organization encourages students to contact their attorneys if they find their schools blocking websites involving scholarships or clubs for LGBT students. The ACLU has also won suits for students in this area, forcing school districts to allow access to such sites.
 
However, access to information about scholarships for a particular demographic of students is a far cry from a student who is able to meet adult men online right in her classroom. While the system will not be perfect, there does need to be a happy medium between giving students access to websites that could be helpful and preventing access to potentially harmful situations. With the Internet constantly in a state of evolution, it is easy to see how difficult it is for schools to keep up with a changing online climate. But keep up they must, if they are going to offer students the best possible academic resources available and keep them safe at the same time.

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