Students protest websites blocked by school administration

A cry resounds from the high-school quad.

“I hate you, Tom!” a student screams.

But his distress yields little reaction, for this scene is all too common on campus.

Besides, it’s just so easy to curse director of technology Tom Wroten whenever a website is undesirably filtered on the school’s Wi-Fi network.

And in general, Country Day students hate blocked websites.

“Unless it’s porn, don’t block it,” junior Savannah Symister said.

But despite being the preferred scapegoat, Wroten doesn’t independently make decisions to block sites—he said, issues are usually decided in administrative meetings.

But that’s not to say Wroten isn’t involved in the process, and according to him, there are two general reasons for blocking .

“First and foremost, (filtering) is for protection,” Wroten said.

“It’s our role to make sure we protect students from outside harm. We have to act as protective parents.”

The second reason is to provide an “academic environment”—meaning blocking sites that are “either a distraction or non-educational.”

Social networking sites such as Facebook fall into this category.

But the majority of high-school students disagree with the school’s policy.

In an Oct. 30 Octagon poll, 85 of 124 high-school students (69 percent) said that Facebook should not be blocked.

While many students admit that Facebook could be distracting in class, one common argument in support of the site prevails.

“People are just going to go onto blocked websites on their iPhones,” junior Sarah Wilks said.

But Wroten considers this point irrelevant.

“If (students) are using their phones, that’s at their own discretion,” he said. “Since we provide Internet access, what we provide we feel we need to filter.

“Obviously I can’t control what you do on your phone—I also can’t control what you do off campus or at home.”

But more prominent in most students’ minds is YouTube—in the same poll, 112 of 124 students (90 percent) said that YouTube should be unblocked.

And, as with Facebook, most of them have a common argument: YouTube can be used for educational videos.

“Say you don’t know how to do a math problem,” Symister said. “Sometimes you can go onto YouTube and find a way to do it.”

Wilks agrees.

“I’m trying to learn how to build an adobe oven for the (school) garden, and I wanted to watch a YouTube video at school, but I couldn’t,” she said.

But for Wroten, the presence of some educational content does not warrant unblocking the site.

“YouTube has an outrageous amount of inappropriate content on it,” he said. “Because we can’t confine to appropriate content within YouTube and because of how our filtering system works, we have to block the whole domain.”

There may be a way to give limited access to YouTube in the future, though.

YouTube has created a service called YouTube for Education, Wroten said, that allows schools to set up a channel with videos it deems appropriate. Students would be able to access videos on this channel.

“We’re still waiting on a hardware solution for that,” Wroten said. “Once it becomes available, that will open up.”

But an even bigger issue with YouTube is bandwidth—videos take up a lot of data and slow down the Internet for the whole school.

“We have 250 users on campus,” Wroten said. “If they were all on YouTube, (the Internet) would go to a crawl.”

Sophomore Alex Bushberg agrees with Wroten. He recalled when YouTube was unblocked for one English class for one day.

“The connection was horrible,” Bushberg said. “(YouTube) takes up too much bandwidth.”

The bandwidth issue also expains why other audio and video streaming sites are blocked, Wroten said.

In the Octagon poll, students were asked to list other sites they believed should not be blocked.

Many of these fall into the categories already rebutted by Wroten—social networking sites like Twitter (although that is actually not blocked) and music or video sites like Pandora, Grooveshark and Hulu.

But not even these were frequently mentioned in the poll. One site was, however: SparkNotes.

Of the 124 students polled, 39 independently wrote that SparkNotes should be unblocked.

The reasoning is simple—SparkNotes is helpful for studying and for reading assignments.

“SparkNotes can be a useful tool when used in conjunction with the reading,” English teacher Brooke Wells said. “The problem is people often don’t do that—they use it instead of the reading.

“I wish it could be unblocked, but it kind of has to be.”

According to Wroten, SparkNotes was blocked years ago—when the student network was first established (but was temporarily left out recently due to a change in filters).

In fact, most of the school’s policy was decided at this time, he said.

“We went through the 52 categories and spoke about them as a school. Since then, it has not changed—we are only adding or whitelisting (unblocking) domains based on that.”

The school currently uses SonicWALL, its firewall provider, as its blocking service.

According to SonicWALL’s website, the goal of its filtering service is to enforce “productivity and protection policies and block inappropriate, illegal and dangerous Web content.”

It “has categorized over 20 million URLs, IP addresses and domains in a continuously updated, dynamically rated database, with thousands more added daily.”

From its database, administrators can select from a list of 52 categories—including obvious examples such as Pornography, Gambling and Illegal Drugs as well as less-questionable categories such as Vehicles, Reference and Shopping—that will each block a wide range of sites.

And in addition to blocking by category, administrators can add or remove specific websites to provide complete control.

This allows Wroten to unblock sites that are blocked by mistake or add other sites “as they’re requested or as they become problems,” he said.

And when he does block, he can be certain someone will shriek in anger and declare their wrath upon him for censoring the Internet.

“There will always be a group of people that will find that it’s censorship on some level, but we truly do it as a protective service,” Wroten said.

“The Internet is a dangerous place and we filter by taking into consideration grades kindergarten through 12th.”

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