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Gradebook

Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

School site linked to porn is shut down

25

January

NEW PORT RICHEY — As far as Gulf Middle School principal Stan Trapp knew, his school’s web site “resources” page offered links designed to help students and parents.

But as he learned Friday morning, one of the links that was to provide free clip art actually directed users to a gay porn site.

The Pasco school district’s information technology department disabled the web site immediately after learning of the connection. The district also shut down internet access for students and staff at the school in order to launch a review of what happened.

“Obviously, we’re going to investigate this,” Trapp said early in the day. “I’m hoping that there will be some legal recourse. It’s outrageous.”

By late Friday, district technology experts believed they had the answer. It appeared that the site in question had an educational bent until the end of 2007, when the domain name expired, they said. A gay porn operator then purchased the address and changed the content.

The activity on the Gulf Middle site came just days after state and local law enforcement launched an investigation into how a friend with links to pornography arrived on the MySpace page of the school’s resource officer.

Internet experts said the two incidents reveal just how easy it is to put inappropriate materials in front of children on the internet, despite the best intentions.

“Even if someone could somehow verify all those pages were ‘clean’ at one point in time, they could change at any time, and not under your control,” Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of California-based People for Internet Responsibility, wrote in an e-mail to the Times.

Weinstein discovered the link on Gulf’s site after reading about the school resource officer on a national internet-oriented web site. He told Paul Levy, a lawyer who had been following the story at Washington D.C.-based Public Citizen, the watchdog agency founded by Ralph Nader.

Levy sent the information along to the Times.

“I think the school district thing is worse,” said Levy, who focuses on internet issues. The resource officer “friended somebody (on MySpace) and the person he friended did not have pornographic stuff on the web site ... but linked to a web site. That’s actually further removed from what you (saw) on the school district web site, which was a direct link to a web site with some pretty racy stuff.”

Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino said the incidents at Gulf made her keenly aware that the district must quickly improve its technology program.

The district is building a new computer center with upgraded systems, filters and security. Two committees also are working on updating policies and procedures involving technology and its use.
“We don’t want anything similar to this to happen again,” said Fiorentino, who ordered the immediate shutdown of Gulf Middle’s internet service moments after finding out about the pornography link.

She then instructed the information technology department to begin reconstructing how the link got onto the school’s site. Also, Fiorentino told all district web site administrators to scour all links for their appropriateness as soon as possible.

“We have to worry about the safety of these kids,” Fiorentino said.

School Board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey wholeheartedly agreed on that point.

“It really scares me as a parent of 12-year-old twins what is on the internet,” Starkey said. “It’s not realistic to say ‘No more internet access.’ We’ve got to find a way to get rid of the garbage, and we’ve got to get on it right away.”

Already, the district has acknowledged in its use guidelines that the internet isn’t always a safe place, and even with safeguards in place the material available to students “may not be considered to be of educational value” to everyone. And even though teachers will supervise student use of technology, the district encourages parents to talk with their children about values “and how those beliefs should guide student activities while using the internet.”

The district also posts disclaimers about how it can’t control the content of web sites run by outside groups. And it threatens disciplinary action against employees who use the network for sending, retrieving or viewing obscene materials.

Pasco does not go as far as the Hillsborough school district, which spokesman Stephen Hegarty said allows only limited links to web sites it can verify, such as the Florida Department of Education.

First Amendment lawyer Alison Steele, who includes the St. Petersburg Times among her clients, said she knew of no laws or cases that would make the school district legally liable to any parent complaints that their children obtained pornography through the district web site.

Still, she chided the idea that a simple printed statement that the district isn’t responsible for linked content absolves the district. That’s simply not true, Steele said.

But rather than look at the issue through a legal lens, she suggested, the better angle is that of politics and social responsibility.

“The question is, shouldn’t they exercise a greater degree of responsibility, ethics and morality than to post a statement saying, Hey, we’re not responsible for the stuff that is up there,” Steele said.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek, Times staff writer

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:33am]

    

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