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[whitespace] Porn Scar

Gilroy--Students at Gilroy High School are finding that information on the Internet is more than a click away. Since the district installed software meant to filter out pornography, information for a research paper can be as far as ten blocks away--at the county library, where anyone can still surf the 'Net without the intrusive program.

Though meant to filter only pornography, Surf Watch, the software the school district uses, often blocks all kinds of sites that students need to view for research projects. Carol Smith, Gilroy High's librarian, says students researching origami or even the Renaissance have been shut out of sites that appeared to have legitimate information.

"I try to help them find a site that will give them what they are looking for, but sometimes I can't," Smith says. When all else fails, "I tell them to try the public library if they can." Gilroy got wired in the fall of 1996, and installed the filtering software last January as a precaution against students looking up or accidentally bumping into pornography on the web.

Surf Watch, like most filtering software, relies on both pre-programmed keywords and lists of pornographic sites to determine what to block. And, like all such software on the market, it makes mistakes both ways. It blocks non-pornographic sites, and some nudes are bound to sneak through now and then. In recognition of its own short comings, the software is designed to be flexible. If someone thinks a site has been mistakenly blocked, an administrator can unblock it.

But that is no panacea for Smith. Students should be allowed to surf the Net in its entirety and determine for themselves what is and is not appropriate, she says: "None of us should stand in as God and say you have the right to know this, or you don't."

But even if she wanted to allow students to see blocked sites, she couldn't. Smith, who runs the high-school library, has not been given the authority to determine what sites have been erroneously blocked. She is not even certain how request that a site be opened.

Chris Lopez Chatfield, the school district's technology coordinator, holds the key to the forbidden information. Chatfield says only one request to open a blocked site has come her way this year--for a Webpage about mountain biking. Unlike Smith, Chatfield is comfortable determining what is and is not appropriate material for students. "As teachers we always make decisions about what material is appropriate for class room use," she says.

But Smith believes blocking information is different than making up a reading list, because a software program determines what students can and can not see. "We can't teach someone to be discriminating if we make choices for them," Smith says. "We have to think about what we are teaching kids."
Jim Rendon

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