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Pinellas schools decide to allow employees access to comments on education blog

The Pinellas County School District decided this week to again let its employees view the reader comments that are posted on the St. Petersburg Times' education blog, the Gradebook.

District officials said that in August they inadvertently put a block on the comments portion of the Gradebook, a blog on the Times' website, tampabay.com, that reports news about local school districts and also generates feedback that can be scathing and wacky but rich with insider detail.

The problem occurred when the district began using an upgraded Internet filtering system for district computers. But at some point, the block — which allowed viewers to post comments, but not see theirs or anybody else's — became intentional.

Superintendent Julie Janssen told school board members at a Tuesday workshop that it was not appropriate for employees to be looking at the comments. But she apparently changed her mind after the workshop, following a conversation with board attorney Jim Robinson.

John Just, assistant superintendent for management information systems, said the Gradebook was one of hundreds of sites that was accidentally blocked when the district upgraded its filtering program, which filters based on categories. For instance, he said, a site called FunBrain was blocked because it was categorized as a "game" rather than an educational game.

Regardless, at some point, the block was no longer accidental.

At Tuesday's workshop, board member Robin Wikle said "censorship came up in my mind." Board member Linda Lerner said while there are plenty of nasty comments on the Gradebook, "It's democracy."

Teachers can look at plenty of other websites on district computers during their breaks, Lerner said later. "So why can't they look at the (blog) comments?"

Board policy allows employees to use district computers for "incidental personal use" on their breaks or before or after school, Just said. Things like checking bank balances or reading the newspaper online are "perfectly acceptable," he said.

But there was "healthy consideration and debate" about the Gradebook, he said.

"One side of the argument could be, is it appropriate for someone using school district equipment to be commenting about school district affairs on a website site of any kind?" he said. "Ultimately where we ended up is that it's no different than any other medium that's available."

As of Thursday afternoon, the district was still working to provide full access to Gradebook comments.

As it turns out, comments on the Gradebook are or were blocked in other school districts, too. As in Pinellas, a software glitch caused comments to be blocked temporarily in Pasco County. Officials there said once they were notified, they allowed access to the comments. But in Hillsborough County, they will stay blocked, along with many other sites in which readers are allowed to post unmoderated comments, said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

"We block social networking and other things, and that falls into that category in the IT world," he said. "We're not specifically blocking the comments on the Gradebook. It just falls into that same category. If you go into Facebook, it's blocked."

Times staff writers Tom Marshall and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

Pinellas schools decide to allow employees access to comments on education blog 10/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 7, 2010 11:29pm]
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