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High school confidential 

Censorship is rearing its ugly head these days in Halifax schools. Picture this: A high school teacher trying to give a science lesson on cloning wants to use animated, interactive websites to illustrate it. But half a dozen of them are blocked when students try to call them up on their classroom computers. It gets worse. James Murch, who graduated last year from Sir John A. Macdonald high school, says he was supposed to represent Ghana in the Model United Nations, but was denied school access to the Ghanian government's official web site because it was classified as "extremist." "I was also doing research on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

I tried to access Al Jazeera and found it was blocked at certain times as well." Murch, a first-year arts student at Saint Mary's, who plans to major in International Development Studies, says that last year, he had to do most of his internet research at home. "Basically, the only information you can access now in high school is things which show a Western view on the world," he says. "I don't think our public school system is really geared to teaching people how to think anymore."

A teacher confirms that alternative news and information sites are often blocked including Harper's Magazine, the Village Voice and the Earth Island Journal. When the teacher recently tried to gain access to an alternative news and commentary site called Novakeo.com, a message popped up: "Access Denied. The site you have chosen has been categorized as: Occult." "So much for free speech and the free flow of ideas," the teacher says, adding that access is routinely denied to websites with blogs or journals.

"I find the situation frustrating," another teacher tells me. "Extremely frustrating." The teacher says science sites on cellular division have been blocked. Incredibly, the 3,500 teachers who work for the Halifax school board have the same severely-restricted access to the internet that their 54,000 students have. The same rules apply from grade primary right up to Grade 12, which means that internet filters designed to protect very young children are being applied to senior high school students and their teachers.

But spokespeople for the Halifax Regional School Board don't seem very sympathetic to the frustrations of teachers or students like James Murch. In fact, they seem obsessed by the dangers of the internet and the need to protect young students from its horrors.

Gerard Costard, the board's co-ordinator of information technology says that teachers should be doing their lesson planning and internet research at home where their servers aren't affected by school censorship. "If a teacher finds a site that they feel is useful for their curriculum, they should let their principal know and the principal should email the tech department (at the Board) and say "I've looked at this and I would like to have this unblocked' and we would look at the site and if it's good, if we determine that sure, that site should be used, we'd unblock it." Costard says the unblocking would probably happen "within a week." Great! So much for the joys of instant internet access. So much for the educational effectiveness of an internet system that Costard says is costing taxpayers almost $700,000 a year.

The Board is also paying $10,000 a year for Netsweeper, the internet filtering system that is routinely denying students and teachers legitimate access to scientific sites and news sources. Netsweeper, based in Guelph, Ontario, boasts on its web site that it uses sophisticated "artificial intelligence" to construct its filters. It also offers educational institutions "silent tracking" so that technical administrators "can determine which users are accessing which sites." Beware teachers and students. Big Brother School Board may be watching!

When a high school teacher tried to gain access to The Coast's website last week, this message popped up: "Access Denied. The site you have chosen has been categorized as: Profanity." Fuck!

Send your inappropriate thoughts to brucew@thecoast.ca even if they're NSFW.

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