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Halifax Regional School Board says Access Denied 

Access denied

Hey kids, today’s lesson is on the art of internet censorship. You’ll learn about censorship by experiencing it yourself---day after day after day. That’s why the Halifax Regional School Board has installed filters restricting internet access for all 54,000 of you. From grade primary to grade 12, the same restrictions apply. So if you think we’re treating all of you like five-year-olds, you’re absolutely right!Here’s a typical school censorship story: Three weeks ago the local media were abuzz with news that traffic tie-ups are costing SuperCity residents and businesses at least $7 million a year. That figure was based on a new study by the Nova Scotia think tank GPI Atlantic. When high school students tried to find out more by visiting the GPI website, up popped an all-too-familiar message: “Access Denied.” The Netsweeper blocking system that costs the board $10,000 per year blocked the GPI site because it supposedly contained blogs and journals and neither are considered fit for the eyes of HRM students or their teachers. When I phoned the school board last week to investigate, I learned that the chief censor had decided to unblock the GPI site. Apparently, GPI exec director Ron Colman had emailed the board pointing out that the GPI site had neither blogs nor journals, only tons of information about Nova Scotia’s economy. Unfortunately, the incident was nothing new. According to teachers and students, the filters routinely deny access to legitimate scientific sites and news sources. It’s possible to get sites reviewed and unblocked, but the bureaucratic process can take a weekor more.“It’s very frustrating when you’re trying to research something and you can’t get any information,” says Caroline Whidden, co-president of the Halifax West students’ council. Last year Whidden was trying to conduct internet research on racism, but found that many sites were blocked. Her class was studying Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in which the villain is a Jew and their teacher wanted them to explore the roots of anti-Semitism. Whidden says she ended up doing her research at home.Ben Proudfoot, co-president of the students’ council at Citadel High, says internet censorship is subject to ridicule at his school because sites keep getting blocked for no apparent reason. “But that’s the way the school board works,” he says. He adds that the board is always worried about what parents will say if someone gets caught looking at web porn. Proudfoot points out that students are required to sign a strict acceptable-use policy under which they agree not to use the internet for illicit or illegal purposes. “Students should be on the honour system after they sign the policy,” he says.Both Proudfoot and Whidden say students have learned how to get around censorship. Whidden says that when they find ways to get into Facebook for example, word spreads fast. But Gerard Costard, the board’s technical co-ordinator says he’s on to that problem and it “will soon be corrected.” However, he does add that the board is working on ways of loosening internet restrictions on its 3,500 teachers. At the moment, teachers are subject to the same censorship as their students. Costard is testing a system to give teachers separate web access, but he’s not sure how he’ll come up with the $145,000 it would take to do that. And he makes it clear that certain sites, with gambling or pornography for example, will still be blocked for everyone.Caroline Whidden’s frustrating attempt to research racism illustrates the folly of school censorship. Good education involves delving into contentious issues, not just safe ones. But websites with controversial points of view or edgy information are the most likely to get blocked. Halifax school authorities obviously don’t trust high school students to act responsibly. So, they point surveillance cameras at them and impose internet censorship designed for five-year-olds. I wonder what lessons the students are learning from that. a


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