Web filtering prompts frustration

Students question school restrictions for online content

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As the Technology Department continues to adjust what sites students can use on school networks, many students, frustrated with these restrictions, are using alternative methods to access blocked content.

According to Network Manager Richard Williams, the school “is required by federal and state laws to impose protection measures that block or filter inappropriate Internet access.” The administration views web filtering as a measure to establish a safe and secure network for student use.

While on the school Wi-Fi, some sites like Facebook are blocked from student access, yet more popular social networks like Snapchat and Instagram remain unrestricted.

Certain mobile games that require Internet access are also blocked on the network, including the recent phenomenon, “Fortnite.”

In response to these restrictions, students have begun to use Virtual Private Networks, or VPN, allowing them to access blocked content. As Assistant Principal of the Northfield Campus Gail Gamrath said in a Tech Department iPad Orientation Video, “Attempts to bypass our secure network access these sites are a violation of our school policy and will result in consequences.

“Any device brought onto school grounds is expected to connect to student Wi-Fi and receive the same filtered internet access. This is a way of helping keep everyone safe,” added Gamrath.

Some students expressed their confusion over these restrictions.

“I don’t believe there should be any filters on social media. We are in high school and we should control our own decisions,” said sophomore Frank Zawrazky.
Other students don’t take issue with the web filtering. Senior Kirk Stewart thinks that the web filtering encourages students to focus on schoolwork, but he acknowledges that those who do use VPN “won’t be stopping anytime soon.”

Sophomore Nadia Jaikaran expressed similar views. “I get why some people would be upset about [the school blocking Facebook], but many teachers use Facebook, so it might be a safety measure to restrict connections with teachers beyond the classroom,” said Jaikaran.

Student Alliance has heard student concerns and plans to address them. Junior and student body president-elect Bill Yen thinks there is inconsistency in what sites are blocked.

Last year, Yen worked with junior vice president-elect Andrew Willcocks to unblock Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.

“The sites did get unblocked, but it wasn’t necessarily due to our actions. It’s ultimately something we don’t have control over, but we do keep trying,” said Yen.
The process of blocking and unblocking sites is more complicated than it seems. According to Yen, the technology department has frequent meetings with the Board of Education, and one of the talking points is web filtering.

In other words, the Board makes the decisions regarding what sites should be allowed on student Wi-Fi.

Chief Technology Officer Stephanie Helfand explained that the technology department considers several factors when adjusting their web filtering system.

“We look to our students, faculty, administrators, and staff to determine what sites and apps should or should not be available. These discussions encompass a variety of topics including internet safety, cyberbullying, a balance of internet access with the need to maintain an educational environment at school, and the modeling of a healthy, balanced life that is not dependent on screens, among other topics,” said Helfand.

Williams explained that the web filtering software works in effect like an anti-virus program. The filter continually updates to consider “new malicious and inappropriate sites” and configures the system to block this content.

“If necessary, the network security staff has the ability to make exception to these sites if the web filtering system presents a false positive,” said Williams.

Sophomore Nick Crispino argued that the school gives students agency in many other ways, so there should be greater leeway in a digital context as well.

“New Trier gives us many freedoms that other schools do not have, such as the ability to move through the halls during free periods. Although there’s the potential for distraction, I believe students should be tasked with learning responsibility, both in the classroom and out,” said Crispino.

Ultimately, Helfand described the student’s personal role in regulating themselves as responsible Internet users.

“We expect students to use technology for both academic and personal purposes when on campus. We know our students have unfiltered internet access across multiple devices on a personal level and a responsibility to exercise good judgment when engaging in these spaces,” said Helfand.

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