Anytime anyone says the "c" word, you get our attention.
The "c" word.
We took notice when some students and parents told the trustees of the Billings Public School District about overly restrictive internet filters that put too many websites beyond the access of students in school.
This week, we followed up on the concerns with Superintendent Greg Upham. And he admitted: The issue caught the district by surprise, but thanks to working with students, staff and the new software, the district is opening sites where students can learn about the world and research assigned topics.
We recognize the tricky position the district is in. It has a responsibility to protect students of varying ages from inappropriate content or even those who prey on children. But, we also understand the district has to make sure the world opens (safely) to students for research and understanding. While it has a responsibility to protect them, it can't do that at the expense of sheltering them from what they will face when they graduate.
We believe that the school district has taken appropriate steps to loosen up the restrictions without just turning off the new protective software.
The genesis of this problem was new software that automatically blocked sites with suspicious names or content (words and photos) which was possibly objectionable. We understand that for software there may not be much difference between the naked bodies of pornography and naked bodies of a biology website.
The district purchased software and an agreement with a company constantly updates terms and websites to block so that it protects students. Of course, the default settings are general, generic and more restrictive.
Upham explained that, after the board meeting in which the concern was brought up, district officials immediately started looking at ways to modify and customize the list so that sites that shouldn't be blocked are allowed.
Upham described the process as collaborative, taking input from students and staff about how to loosen restrictions and still keep students safe. For example, there is an anonymous form where students can ask for sites to be reviewed.
For the district's part, Upham told The Gazette that staff review all of the requests to ensure the site meets the safety and educational requirements the district sets out. If a site is OK (or conversely if it is flagged for inappropriate content) it's reviewed first by a human. While this may slow the process, it's also necessary so that educators can make an informed decision.
Upham said the district is between one-third and halfway through the process. Both the district and the software company will continue to make modification so that the sites that are allowed or not are never static.
We believe that if it was discovered the district would allow any site to be accessed by any district computer, we'd have concerns. And, we certainly would have concerns about censorship or, as one student called it, "social engineering." However, we believe that the district has sincerely tried to strike the necessary balance between protecting students and educating them.
And while one student's censorship may be another's protection, we also recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach is going to have limitations when there are 16,600 students in the district.
Given the potential for danger and the liability, we believe the district has acted responsibly. Moreover, we believe the action it has taken afterward is admirable.