Oct 12 2006

Security in Schools

The Never-Ending Spam Challenge

Schools use filtering software to stop unwanted content in its tracks


THE NATION’S SCHOOLS ARE DROWNING IN SPAM. IN FACT, SOME ANALYSTS ESTIMATE THAT MORE than half of e-mail traffic counts as spam. That’s a big reason why Bartholomew Consolidated School doesn’t assign e-mail accounts to its student and blocks the use of free e-mail accounts on district PCs, says Mike Jamerson, the Columbus, Indiana-based district’s director of technology. Nevertheless faculty members—the only ones at Bartholomew with e-mail accounts—still receive a deluge of unwanted e-mail that includes everything from offensive pornography to questionable investing advice.

Yet many schools are finding ways to overcome the spam challenge, and managing the prevention of inappropriate and unwanted content from entering campus networks. It’s a key initiative, as the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) ties government funding to whether and how schools filter network content. As such, Internet and network content filtering doesn’t just make good sense, it also makes for healthier school budgets and happier parents.

Guardians at school

Click HereCIPA became law in December 2000. It requires schools and libraries to certify enforcement of an Internet safety policy that includes filtering or blocking technology to receive federal benefits, such as education rate (E-rate) discounts. (E-rate is a federal program established in 1996 that makes services and Internet access available to schools and libraries at discounted rates.) Under CIPA provisions, schools must guard against computer access to visual depictions that are considered obscene, pornographic or harmful to minors.

“Schools interested in E-rate funds have CIPA well in mind. Most schools have some form of online safety measure,” says Naomi Gittins, a staff attorney at the National School Boards Association, an Alexandria, VA-based nonprofit that advocates for school boards across the country.

Indeed, the association’s recent study, entitled, Are We There Yet?, shows that most schools have addressed content filtering. The study found 91 percent of schools surveyed have installed content filtering software; 78 percent of schools say teacher supervision is central to a safety policy; 69 percent of schools have installed firewalls. The 2002 survey was based on phone interviews with technology decision-makers in 811 districts, including 90 of the largest 100 districts with more than 25,000 students, and 323 small districts with fewer than 2,500 students.

A 2001 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 96 percent of schools used more than one procedure or technology to enforce their Internet use policy. This survey was a representative sample of approximately 1,000 public schools nationwide.

“The goal of Internet filtering is to safeguard students as they go out to the Web,” John Reiels says, director of technology at Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin. “We have to ensure that inappropriate content is not accessible through the Web. It’s a significant issue and we don’t want to fail in that regard.”

Thinking ahead

One school district that always keeps CIPA in mind is East Maine School District 63 in Des Plaines, Illinois. The district has employed some form of Internet filtering for the past five years, though monitoring that network has grown increasingly difficult, says Michael Kastler, the district’s network specialist.

For the first four years, the district managed four dial-up connections at smaller schools and a dozen dial-up connections at larger schools to provide Internet access to staff and students. “There were so few computers, they were being overseen directly by instructors,” Kastler explains.

But the district reformed the low-tech PC monitoring system when all seven schools switched to T1 lines five years ago. Kastler was hired at that time to implement and manage the content filtering technology. Now, the district IT department manages 1,000 PCs running Windows 98 and XP and 15 servers running Windows 2000.

The district uses an Internet filtering service by N2H2 located on a proxy server to block objectionable network traffic and content originating from inappropriate and unwanted domains. The vendor constantly updates its database of objectionable Web sites and, as a consequence, it’s very unusual for an established Web page to slip through its filter of blocked pages. The database includes over 300,000 commercial pornography Web sites and other domains that advocate discrimination, illegal activity, violence, alcohol and all chat sites.

N2H2 remotely updates the proxy server software and database daily. Kastler can visit Database.n2h2.com to check whether a specific Web site or domain address is in the database. Kastler plans to switch to a version of the software that runs on Windows 2000 instead of Linux and works directly with the firewall, not as a proxy server. “That means the content filtering program will better block unwanted sites,” he says.

Content filtering software is not foolproof, and Kastler still has work to do. For example, his district prohibits instant messaging programs by blocking the Internet ports that IM programs use, and he customizes filtering software to block other applications and programs that aren’t allowed.

In addition, the updated software will block unwanted files that demand significant network bandwidth, such as MP3 files. And because the new software works on Windows 2000, Kastler will be able to take advantage of the operating system’s Active Directory feature to administer Internet access to certain classes of users. For example, he will be able to assign broader technology access to principals and teachers, and permit only restricted Internet access for students.

At Manhattan-Ogden Public Schools’ Unified School District No. 383 in Manhattan, Kansas, firewall appliance technology blocks unwanted and inappropriate network traffic, says Trey Anderson, one of the district’s three network administrators who manage 2,000 PCs and 26 servers spread among sixteen K-12 schools.

In addition, for the past five years, the district has used SurfControl filtering software as a second layer of protection against inappropriate content. But not every site gets blocked, Anderson says. “More Web sites are being created and will eventually overwhelm the [software’s] ability to keep up.”

Appropriate use

In addition to filtering content to protect students and meet CIPA requirements, schools must determine what constitutes appropriate use of PCs, the Internet and technology equipment, says Bill Rust, the research director in the public sector of vertical industries for research firm Gartner Inc.

“These are the ‘Rules of the Road,’ so to speak,” explains Rust, a former high school teacher and school district IT director who studies technology in K-12 education.

Schools often call the National School Boards Association for guidance in drafting an appropriate use policy. However, there is no template for appropriate use of technology for schools, says Gittins, the attorney at the association. “Schools should consult with their attorney to ensure CIPA compliance,” she says.

Typically, teachers and students agree to use technology for instructional purposes and school business. But the key is protecting the students, Rust adds. “You want to protect your children the best you can,” he explains. “If you fail to do so, you’ll have some very upset parents.”