Website restrictions frustrate students

This+message+appears+when+students+try+accessing+a+blocked+website.+Websites+are+blocked+at+the+high+school+for+containing+explicit+content%2C+ranging+from+violence+to+sex.

This message appears when students try accessing a blocked website. Websites are blocked at the high school for containing explicit content, ranging from violence to sex.

Jacob Spiegel

It’s your free block and you’re sitting in front of a computer in the library. Yesterday you posted a great-looking picture on social media, and you can’t wait to see the comments from your friends. You enter the URL and the all too familiar symbol of the Town of Brookline appears with the “We Can’t Connect to This Website” message underneath.

Social media websites are among some of the pages blocked on the high school’s computers due to administrators considering them to be ill fitting of a learning environment. However, some students consider these restrictions unnecessary.

Town Information Technology Director Kevin Stokes said that instead of specific websites, the school WIFI filters out broader categories such as pornography, social media and online games.

According to Stokes, broader categories have been chosen that are seen as inappropriate for viewing in school, and the program scans websites that students view to see if they fall into those categories. In addition to blocking categories, the program scans websites to look for malware that can harm the computers.

“Specifically it operates on a block first and then on an exception basis. The second thing that it does is it actually inspects every website that folks go to. What the inspection does is it makes sure that they websites you’re visiting are free from viruses, free from malware, that type of thing,” Stokes said.

According to Stokes, there has been sites not previously blocked by the school, that were suddenly blocked because there was a virus on them that could harm the school computers.

“I know two or three weeks ago we had a legitimate site that was being blocked and we had to do some research to find out that actually the site had been compromised,” Stokes said. “You know, it’s a process. We couldn’t go just unblock it. We had to go through the tests before we could unblock it. Our primary goal is to protect the enterprise.”

According to Director of Education Technology Scott Moore, any of the websites that are blocked have not been specifically chosen by the high school, but by the third party service that categorizes them into the types of websites the school wants to block.

“Because there’s so many websites in the world, the filter is organized by categories,”  Moore said. “Then websites are categorized by a third party site, which spends time looking at websites and says, ‘Oh, look, that’s [for instance] a gambling website.’ Let’s ‘code’ that or ‘tag’ that.”

The  town can manage specific websites by either  “blacklisting”, marking a website as inappropriate, or “whitelisting”, making a previously blocked website allowed.

“If you wanted to allow [a site] you could whitelist it even though it falls into a category of sites that are blocked,” Moore said. “If whatever reason a site wasn’t falling into a category and there was a reason we wanted it to be blocked we could blacklist that site and not allow it on our network.”

If a student searches for a legitimate site and is surprised to find it blocked, it may not have meant to be. The service that the town uses may categorize a website mistakenly, therefore blocking a site that a student needs. Stokes said that when a blocked website is needed by the school, he needs to work fast to unblock that website. Also, when an acceptable website is mistakenly blocked, he needs to quickly address the issue and re-allow the website.

“We try to make sure that we have the proper vehicle, and, certainly from an instructional standpoint, if there’s a site that needs to be accessible we need to be on that quickly so we can remedy that,” Stokes said. “The flip side is, you’ve got a site that is accessible and there was an update sometime overnight or something and lo and behold that site is no longer accessible. That’s a fault on our part and need to get on that as quickly as possible.”

However, Moore said that the network that the students have access to has different restrictions than the one used by staff. According to Moore, teachers have requested that social media be closed to students because it can detract from academics.

“We do have a school filter in place and the rules on that are different for students and staff,” Moore said. “The staff have access to Facebook.That is a conscious choice. I would say that for almost everyone who has asked to have Facebook open, I also have requests to keep Facebook closed because it’s such a distraction for students”

Junior Henry Peebles-Capin said that social media can be an aid during classes, and finds it frustrating that he cannot access it.

“Even sometimes during classes I’ll want to quote something that someone posted and [the teacher will] say, ‘Go find it online’ but I can’t get on the website. What are [the restrictions] even there for, and what am I even doing as an engaged student in class?” Peebles-Capin said.

Junior Ben Cohen said that restrictions can inhibit academic research, because it prevents students from checking out less “mainstream” sites.

“It also limits people doing research from not the most “mainstream” sites. It just limits how many sources you can use,” Cohen said. Cohen also said that while in the library, he cannot play online games with his friends during spare time.

“The problem with blocked websites is that it blocks me off when I’m trying to play games with friends. And, when I go to sites in order to watch comedy videos. It’s very annoying,” Cohen said

Moore said that while teachers have requested Facebook be closed for students, the students haven’t requested that it be open. Stokes said that decisions regarding a site being blacklisted must be thoroughly considered before the block is implemented.

“(Website restrictions)are not an exact science, so you run into situations where you’re maybe making a decision without having all of the information, and you’re certainly not aware of the benefits that are perceived at that moment,” Stokes said. “You have to make sure that everything has a discussion, so there isn’t a hard and fast rule.”

Sophomore Olivia Settlement said that it is possible to access any restricted website in the building using cell phone data. She also said that the restrictions could encourage students to view those websites simply out of contempt.

“I think (the restrictions) are unnecessary, because if people want to go on those website they’ll just do it anyway. If anything it makes people mad, they’re like, ‘Well I’m just going to go on there right now,” Settlement said.

Another restriction that some students find upsetting is blocks on online gaming. According to Peebles-Capin, it is unfair to play games in library if there are those waiting to use the computers for academic purposes, however, since online games are not illegal or inappropriate content, the school is wrongly infringing on what students do in their free time.

“I see the merit in it because if you’re in the library on a computer and you’re playing a game and someone’s waiting for a computer, it’s unfair to the person who has academic focus,” Peebles-Capin said. “Also, at the same time, it’s my free block I should be able to do what I want and the school shouldn’t tell me what I can and can’t do, especially for things such as Slime Soccer. It’s not hurting anyone.”

Moore said that a part of the reason that students do not request for gaming site to be open, is because they realize that when they are playing games they are being distracted from their work.

“They’re like, “Look, maybe I shouldn’t be playing that game right now because I really should be focusing on my schoolwork,” Moore said.

Stokes said that while the technology that the school provides is an excellent tool for research and learning, it must be used in a positive way.
“So on one hand I’m certainly am fully supportive of the vast amounts of information and resources that are out there but like anything you have to make sure it’s being managed properly,” Stokes said. “There are compelling arguments to make for the uses of any technology that is available now. I certainly understand that.”