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New software will help schools screen Internet sites

Florida is about to launch one of the nation's first statewide Internet filtering systems, enabling school districts to screen out pornography and other objectionable Web sites from classroom computers.

The designers of the system acknowledge that it won't catch everything; offensive Web sites spring up like weeds every day, and no filtering system can screen them all. And school officials stress that the most sophisticated filtering system cannot take the place of a vigilant teacher.

But with computers and Internet access becoming routine tools in classrooms, Florida educators felt they needed to shelter schoolchildren from some of the more offensive Web sites.

"Through the use of this filter we're hoping to greatly reduce the likelihood that a school child will accidentally access obscene, profane and objectionable material," said soon-to-be former Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, who will be sworn in as lieutenant governor today.

Some school districts, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, didn't wait for the state to develop a screening system. Pinellas began using a system called Surfwatch more than a year ago. The two-year contract cost the district $5,000. Hillsborough has had a contract with a company called N2H2 for a couple of years.

But many districts, including Pasco County, have no systematic method for filtering the Internet. Many have been relying on teachers to monitor students' computer research.

The Alachua County schools had no filtering system last year when a group of fourth-grade boys were caught accessing nude pictures in class. Their teacher instructed them to search the Internet using the word "jet," and the boys typed in a different word instead, immediately calling up several sex-oriented Web sites.

That incident led parents to question why that school district did not have an Internet filtering system. Alachua is one of four Florida districts that have tried out the state's new filtering system the past year while it was being developed.

The state has been working with a California company called Kansmen, which offers an Internet filtering service called Little Brother.

The way the service works is that the company has employees whose job it is to look at countless Web sites and rate them as productive, unproductive, neutral and not rated. That database of hundreds of thousands of Web sites is made available to clients who screen what they want. Some companies might want to screen Web sites that offer games or sports bulletin boards, because they don't want employees wasting time.

Others, like Florida Department of Education, seek to screen out "adult-oriented material, extremist militant material, racist or hate-oriented material and incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authorities (seditious material)."

"Nobody knows what's out there, so we have people who go out and see what's there and rate it." said Meena Sequeira-Tapsall, who handles education accounts for Kansmen. "Web sites change all the time, so we update it regularly."

Though Kansmen's Little Brother software enables a company to monitor an employee's computer use (essentially peeking over their shoulder to see what Web sites they've visited), Florida is not buying the monitoring feature. Florida has developed its own software and will purchase only Kansmen's database and Web site ratings for the purposes of filtering.

Bill Schmid, director of Florida's Information Resource Network (FIRN), said that by developing its own software, Florida's system should be faster and more tailor-made for the state. A committee of Florida educators will be appointed to recommend guidelines for filtering.

That committee might, for instance, decide whether access to the Starr Report might be blocked in Florida's classrooms. Schmid said Kansmen chose not to screen out the Independent Counsel's report detailing President Clinton's sexual escapades. Some Florida school districts might want to filter it out; others would not. Schmid said the system might be refined so that individual districts can decide independently whether to screen borderline Web sites.

The statewide Internet filtering system should be available to Florida school districts by the end of January. Districts can decide for themselves whether to use the filter system, but because it is free to districts, most are expected to use it. The statewide system is expected to cost the state about $60,000 to develop, and $20,000 a year to maintain, Schmid said.