Digital gatekeepers for K12

5 key considerations for regulating web traffic to ensure safety and save bandwidth
By: | January 19, 2018

For most school districts, internet filters are crucial for complying with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires restricting students from accessing inappropriate online content. Filtering also allows districts to manage limited bandwidth.

At West Rusk County Consolidated ISD in East Texas, for example, too many people running too many applications at once was straining the network, which prevented teachers from getting the most out of classroom internet technology.

“When we had bandwidth openly available, even if students were using a site that was OK, they’d also have YouTube playing in the same window” says Cody Walker, technology supervisor at West Rusk. With the school’s new filter, students are allowed 2.5 megabytes per device, preserving more bandwidth for teachers.

Sidebar: Internet filter providers

Other districts, such as Narragansett School System in Rhode Island (which has Google Fiber internet), have plenty of speedy bandwidth. Its filtering decisions are “mostly focused on making sure that kids aren’t getting into inappropriate content and on complying with CIPA” says Giulio Lugini, director of technology.

Here are five crucial decisions to make in developing best practices for the wide variety of filters—and your options for using them—in K12 schools.

Establish parameters

First, define exactly how and what you want to filter, says Mike Jamerson, director of technology at Indiana’s Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation. Think about setting filtering policies based on age, staff position and time of day. For instance, some streaming services might be blocked during the day, but not after school.

Many filters allow districts to block inappropriate categories, such as gambling, drugs, violence and pornography. Leaders can also set different levels of filtering based on grades, setting higher restrictions for younger students.

Instructional leaders often get involved in filtering decisions. At Duncan Public Schools in Oklahoma, technology and curriculum staff discuss adding filters “based on community standards and keeping students focused on learning standards” says David Altom, district network administrator.

“Sites that offer academic dishonesty, anonymous chat, and those that are generally considered to be time-wasters are blocked as a general rule” Altom says. “Teachers work closely with us, and if a teacher believes a site is blocked unnecessarily, we work together to tier access.”

Social media merits its own policies, which vary by district. At West Rusk, leaders chose to allow Facebook and block all other social media sites. “The students want everything, but that’s not necessarily best” Walker says.

Select the right technology

The next step is determining the right filter for a district’s needs, which depends on size, says Keith Bockwoldt, director of technology services at Township High School District 214 in the Chicago suburbs. “It must be robust enough to handle thousands of connections” he says. “With 12,100 students, our web filters are clustered to handle the large amount of traffic.”

Large districts serving thousands of users likely need on-premises equipment and configuration, but a cloud-based solution may work better for smaller districts, says Altom, in Oklahoma. Also, make sure your product “can handle SSL decryption” he adds.

Many sites, including Google, communicate exclusively with SSL, which means they will get through a filter that can’t read the keyword or image searches. Also, think about the ease of pulling reports from the filter, and whether the filtering company uses an automated process or a human to check the thousands of new URLs that are regularly introduced, Bockwoldt says.

Humans are more reliable for validating that each new URL is correctly categorized.

Finally, think about whether you need the filter to work only on campus or if it should extend to district-owned devices at home.

At Narragansett, the in-house filter monitors users while at school, but each 1-to-1 laptop is also monitored off campus. When away from school, the laptops run exclusively using a Windows client that points them back to the on-site filter no matter where they are, so the filter works even when the devices are at students’ homes, Lugini says.

Provide ongoing maintenance

Even after the right filter with the right parameters is installed, the work is never over. With 54 schools and almost 3,000 teachers, Oregon’s Beaverton School District gets many requests to block or unblock content, says Steven Langford, chief information officer.

“Sometimes a teacher will submit a request to block a site and if it is blocked, another teacher will submit a request to unblock the same one” he says. “To support requests, we have a committee to determine the instructional impact of filter changes.”

At West Rusk, sites must be on an approved list in order to be accessed—and when students want to use sites that aren’t on the list, they can submit a request for approval. In close communication with instructional staff, IT can often approve requests. If It in’t sure, it will contact the principal for input.

“It takes ongoing maintenance, but our staff can usually get a legitimate site approved and added within 20 or 30 minutes” Walker says.

There’s also the challenge of students who try to circumvent the filter. App developers and hackers are constantly introducing new web proxies that can provide anonymity and may be used to bypass filters. So district technology leaders must be constantly on the lookout.

“These proxies are constantly changing names, websites and versions” says Lugini in Narragansett. “Our filter catches some of them, and most eventually become mainstream. Once we become aware of one, we shut it down.”

Trying to keep up with the proxies and the students who use them “can be a never-ending battle of one-upmanship” says Bartholomew’s Jamerson. “Rather than try to detect every misuse, we choose to work on digital citizenship and responsible use of technology.”

Arlington Heights Township District started requiring a digital citizenship course this year for all incoming high school students. They must complete the course before they can install any of their own apps.

“Students [need to] understand what a digital footprint is and that it’s forever” Bockwoldt says.

Establish consequences for misuse

When the rules are set, there must be consequences for breaking them. Narragansett students who attempt to bypass the filter also break the district’s internet usage policy, Lugini says. Infractions are handled on a case by case basis, but can result in students losing their devices for a period of time.

In Arlington Heights, students who bypass the filter or attempt to install banned apps will receive a warning and their parents will be called. “If further infractions take place, it can then lead to a detention” Bockwoldt says.

Communicate openly and regularly

Students, parents, teachers and community members are all concerned about internet filtering—so districts are more successful if they communicate their policies to all these groups. Beaverton’s website includes an explanation of filtering, the reasons the district filters and how filtering decisions are made.

The filter should not be viewed as just IT’s resource to manage; it must be connected to the instruction department, which can provide input on the educational impact of all policies, says Langford, the CIO.

“This means that we have a group of teachers, librarians and other instructional experts who work with IT to evaluate changes to the filter and the instructional impact” he says. “My advice to other di

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