Schools bar Internet links for children Students creating Web site 'outraged' about restriction

'I think it's nuts'

Nearby districts check their pupils' online connections

March 30, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Click on the blue.

That is what George Fox Middle School students want online visitors to their school's World Wide Web home page to be able to do.

By clicking a computer mouse on blue words on the screen, they would be able to reach the rest of the world and a wealth of resources: Kidlink, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Yahooligans, even the personal pages the students make up with graphics, information about their music, games or jokes.

The Anne Arundel County school system, however, forbids all such connections on its home pages. That's in contrast to school systems in neighboring counties that allow links that have been checked and approved by teachers.

"We are not allowed to have any external links," complained James Stallings, 13. He hates the rule and sees it, as most "byteheads" would, as stifling the main purpose of the Internet.

He and Tim Burke, 14, eighth-graders who are creating the school's soon-to-be-launched World Wide Web site, say they are "outraged" by the restrictions. They worry that their work will be boring without the enrichment of links to other computer pages and will go unread.

They can list legislators' telephone numbers, for example, but cannot add the link that would let viewers send electronic mail directly to the lawmakers or connect to General Assembly information.

Their enrichment teacher, Bonnie Schupp, would like to add a Peace Corps link. She cannot.

"We wanted to link to Yahooligans" -- a national site of computer places for kids -- "and a lot of stuff on the Chesapeake Bay," said Tim. They cannot.

School officials are no ogres, however. They are caught in a complex balancing act.

More and more, said Michael C. Hiestand, attorney for the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., the center is hearing of similar conflicts between children wanting to explore cyberspace and school systems wanting to be responsible.

While administrators once could limit students to the books in their school library, school systems are finding a world of unsorted information -- some insightful and helpful but some inaccurate and X-rated.

And it is all at students' fingertips.

Constitutional issue

The U.S. Supreme Court is grappling with the larger issue of Internet content and its availability to children. Justices recently heard arguments about the constitutionality of last year's Communications Decency Act, which makes it a crime for a person knowingly to circulate "patently offensive" sexual material online sites accessible by those under age 18. The justices will rule this year.

Anne Arundel administrators already have ruled -- on the side of caution.

"The Internet, as you well know, is vast and changing from one minute to the next. You could be two clicks away from something that is not acceptable, and you don't want it associated with the school system," said Nancy Jane Adams, who edits school home pages to make sure they conform to the rules.

Gail C. Bailey, branch chief for school library and media services at the state Department of Education, agreed. "It does seem limiting in one sense. But it is the safeguard they have put in there as we try to grapple with what students can get into."

The access issue raises questions of what a school system wants to make available and how, and what constitutes quality control and how to exercise it, Bailey said. Acceptable-use policies touch some of these issues, but they do not reach what goes on outside the school.

"You have a 'Lord of the Flies' in cyberspace situation" with no absolute adult authority over children, said Adam D. Thierer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, referring to William Golding's 1954 novel.

"I think self-regulation is the way," he said of school restrictions. "What is so vitally important in this debate is that teachers get up to speed as quickly as they can. We have a serious generational gap developing here."

At George Fox, for example, computer-literate students wanted to include links to their personal e-mail addresses and home pages on their school home page so they could hear from online visitors to the school site. Administrators rejected the idea, noting that laws bar them from releasing personal information about students.

Still, said Hiestand, the Student Press Law Center attorney, Anne Arundel's no-link policy goes too far.

"I think it's nuts," he said. "[Linking is] what is great about this new media. If you can only go to this one site [such as George Fox's], you are trapped in it, and you may as well pick up a book."

Margaret Honey, deputy director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York, said, "It is an interesting issue that this speaks to. Access to the Web and all these information resources at the click of a button raise all these complicated issues for the schools. Teachers and administrators lose all kinds of ability to control what kind of information students can get their hands on."

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