SDJA students speak out against Internet blocks on controversial websites
By Gabriela Wellman (‘20)
Illustration © Elizabeth Nebo (2019)
While searching for information for an assignment on Roe v. Wade, Galia Cohen (‘20) looked up plannedparenthood.com only to be met with the following message, “Your connection is not private, please navigate back to safety.” Shrugging it off, Cohen attempted to open the second hit from her Google search–‘abortion’–but once again, she encountered the same message redirecting her back to the main Google page.
“It was so irritating,” Cohen explains. “Planned Parenthood is a way to access important information on issues you might not know well enough. The school’s WiFi prohibiting access to it felt like limiting our access to information.”
Ana Gerson (‘21), a student in AP U.S. Government who faced the same impediment as Cohen, says, “It made me feel outraged and confused. I feel like by blocking access for students on that website, the school is trying to influence us into believing something we don’t necessarily believe.”
Similar to AP U.S Government, Judaism and the Body, and Jewish Ethics are classes that push the boundaries of traditional classroom topics. Just like with Cohen’s and Gerson’s experiences with Planned Parenthood, students in these classes were asked to do school-sponsored research and were also surprised to find that websites containing sensitive information were blocked by the SDJA WiFi’s Firewall.
“As a parent, especially thinking of middle school students, I would want to know that they have the freedom to be on the Internet while safety features are in place,” History Department Chair, Mrs. Susan Wu adds, “But I do not understand the block on Planned Parenthood.”
Dean of Students, Mrs. Anna Falkiewicz agrees that the block, specifically on this website, sends a negative message to pro-choice individuals, making them believe that this is not something our community supports, which, she clarifies, is not the intention.
Of course, it is understandable that parameters must be put in place in order to ensure that students navigate safely and resourcefully on the school WiFi, but, based on conversations with students and teachers, there seems to be an overarching request to widen those parameters.
Gali Laska (‘20) thinks that “these parameters are valid, to a certain extent. There are some websites, for example, those which include inappropriate information or photos, that should not be able to be reached under school WiFi, but anything containing valuable information to students should not be blocked.”
But, the school’s WiFi firewall raises some questions: What is being blocked? And why?
Mrs. Sara Hansen, English Department Chair, describes how every year she demonstrates to students her ability to freely access Martinlutherking.org, a website whose name sounds credible but is actually owned by the KKK. How is it that such sites can be visited, but truly informative ones, such as plannedparenthood.com are blocked?
The Lion’s Den decided to reach out to the school’s IT Director, Mr. Chris Hill, to find out more about the firewall and how the restriction might be used more effectively. Apparently, SDJA’s firewall works by identifying and flagging certain words or phrases, such as ‘drugs,’ and ‘sex,’ and blocking out websites that includes those red-flags.
“[It blocks] any standard sites that aren’t appropriate for kids or employees at work,” Hill clarifies. But, regardless of how this block happens, many students can agree that widening the parameters on technology would enhance their learning experience.
Jimmy Cohen (‘22) is among a number of students offering potential solutions and next steps toward fixing the block. “First and foremost, I think that [plannedparenthood.com] has to be unblocked immediately,” Cohen says. “I also think that, at the very least, we need to be provided with a list of approved websites for research, especially on these more controversial topics such as abortion and drugs.”
Another popular suggestion around campus is the idea of a ‘teacher override,’ a solution allowing students researching topics for a specific class to request access to blocked websites directly from their teachers. Teachers could then override the firewall’s system on those specific devices. Given the amount of student interest in improving Internet access, it remains to be seen what the solution may be.
Amidst the controversy, it is reassuring to hear that SDJA administration and the IT department are not seeking to steer students’ minds with any political bias.
Mrs. Falkiewicz reiterates the fact that, “SDJA values individuals’ own opinions on political issues and is, by no means, trying to formulate opinions for its students.”
Hopefully the entire student body can look forward to a solution that fosters the use of the latest technology in their learning in a way that doesn’t expose them to distracting, and even harmful, information.