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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

High School students' lawsuit forces district to remove filter blocking LGBT websites

Vineland school officials have removed a filter that blocked gay and lesbian websites on computers at the high school and middle schools after two Vineland High School students filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The school district in Cumberland County was the first in New Jersey to be targeted by the ACLU and Yale Law School as part of a national effort to combat what they say is illegal blocking of pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-related websites on public school computers.
The filter will remain at the elementary schools.
“We err on the side of caution and block a lot of stuff,” Vineland technology supervisor Steve Dantinne said. “We had been unblocking individual sites at teacher request. But after I reviewed some of the sites that were being blocked, we agreed to remove the LGBT filter.”
The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act requires school districts to install blocking software or forfeit federal e-rate funds for technology. Vineland received $1.2 million in e-rate money this year, Dantinne said. The goal of the law is to protect children in school from pornographic or other age-inappropriate websites, but schools also block non-educational sites, including gaming sites and Facebook.
“It’s based on educational value,” Dantinne said.
The complaint was filed by high school students Justin Rodriguez and Shaun Laurencio.
Rodriguez, 16, a junior, said his first experience with the filter was during his freshman year, when the Human Rights Campaign site was blocked and a message came up saying it was blocked under the LGBT category. The Blue Coat software used by Vineland includes LGBT as a specific category that can be filtered. Company representatives did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday.
“I saw Shaun in the hallway, and we went to see the assistant principal to ask about it,” Rodriguez said. “He sent out a notice, and a week or so later we were told the site was unblocked but didn’t get a reason for why it had been blocked.”
In his sophomore year, Rodriguez tried to get on the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, website, but was again blocked. It was then unblocked after a request was filed. After getting a letter from Eileen Bosco, a teacher and adviser to the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, Dantinne removed the LGBT filter from her computer.
This year Rodriguez tried to do research on Harvey Milk — a gay activist and San Francisco politician who was assassinated while in office in 1978 — for a civil rights report. Rodriguez said all of the websites he tried to access were blocked, again for LGBT content. He contacted the school principal and had a meeting with Dantinne, who offered options.
“He said it was a generic filter, but we could unblock them for after-school use, or unblock a list of websites.” Rodriguez said. “But our goal was to eliminate the LGBT filter. I know there was some concern about pornography, but there is a separate filter for that.”
Rodriguez did some research, found the “Don’t Filter Me” project run by the ACLU and Yale Law School, and filed an online complaint in mid-February, not sure if he would get a response. He heard back a week later.
Rodriguez said what really bothered him was that while the filter would block sites such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, it would not block other sites that were anti-homosexual. Bosco also had complained that anti-gay sites were accessible from school computers.
Dantinne said monitoring the Internet is a delicate process, and decisions to block and unblock sites are made on a daily basis. He said the district uses the generic filters provided with the software and always chooses to err on the side of caution.
“I probably get at least three or four requests a week from teachers to either unblock a site they want to use or block some new site the students managed to get onto,” he said.
He said if any individual sites within the LGBT category create complaints, he will review them, but the sites he saw were informational. So after a review with the district’s attorney and administration, he recommended removing the filter, which was done March 31. That action closes the complaint with the ACLU.
Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, said the organization is not campaigning against Internet filters but is concerned about components of those filters that block legitimate information. She said the ACLU has contacted 26 school districts in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties asking for their Internet policies and software used.
She said the ACLU is gratified that Vineland reviewed and decided to unblock the sites, but remains concerned that the policy is still in place at other schools. The national ACLU announced Monday that letters also had been sent to schools in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Investigations have begun in 14 other states.
“As long as the anti-LGBT filter is in place, students will be confronted with a demeaning and stigmatizing message that the site has been blocked on account of its LGBT-related content,” Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, said in a statement.
Rodriguez is now working to coordinate the high school Gay Straight Alliance’s annual Day of Silence project Friday. Vineland and Cumberland Regional high schools are participating in the national project sponsored by GLSEN to raise awareness of the bullying and harassment of LGBT students.
“That was one of the websites I couldn’t get on at school,” Rodriguez said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:


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