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TAMING TECHNOLOGY FOR SCHOOL

Educators have to somehow separate trash and treasure.

As he geared up to open Wiregrass Ranch High School two years ago, principal Ray Bonti had technology on his mind.

He questioned teachers to ensure they were computer savvy and felt comfortable bolstering their lessons with blogs, podcasts and the Internet. It made sense, Bonti said, knowing that today's teens "operate at warp speed" in the high-tech world and that such skills could make them more valuable in the workplace.

But in opening a "technology rich" school, Bonti also ran the risk of bringing in content that doesn't belong in schools.

For evidence, look no further than Gulf Middle School on the other side of Pasco County. In one week, the school's resource officer found trouble when a MySpace friend offered links to pictures of naked women, while the school Web site itself provided a direct link to a gay porn site that bought the domain of a one-time educational site.

"It's a really tricky issue," said Chris Stephenson, executive director of the New York-based Computer Science Teachers Association. "Even those of us who are very vigilant and really care about these issues can have these things happen."

Still, there are ways to limit the exposure and, if inappropriate materials make it through, ways to learn from the incidents, experts and educators say.

Bonti brought in technology specialist Samuel Parisi to create a heavily monitored system at Wiregrass Ranch High that allows students and teachers to collaborate online with little interference from the world of spam, phishing, endless pop-ups and other Internet maladies.

Under Parisi's management, the school runs its own Web site from a password protected server that can't be accessed from anywhere but the school. Students and teachers alike must have school-generated user names and passwords to add any content, and the system keeps a running log of everyone who signs in and everything they do.

The school also keeps track of the individual identification number of every computer allowed onto the server.

And site administrators conduct monthly audits of all links to outside Web sites and bimonthly audits of all content. If something unexpected finds its way onto the site, it is quickly detected.

"In the same way we audit our blogs and we audit our links, we ask our teachers to do the same," Parisi said.

Wiregrass Ranch's vigilance is not necessarily the norm for schools, though.

Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino acknowledged that her school district - in particular Gulf Middle - got caught in the middle of technology hardware and policy improvements designed to bring the system into the 21st century.

Fortunately, Fiorentino said, a districtwide audit of all Internet links to outside sites didn't turn up any more porn connections.

Local teachers unions also have been guiding members to keep them from getting into trouble inadvertently. No one wants to become the next Julie Amero, a Connecticut substitute teacher who faced 40 years in prison after her classroom computer got hooked on an endless porn loop that she didn't know how to stop.

Amero was initially convicted on four felony counts of "risking injury to a child," but a judge set aside her verdict. She has been awarded a new trial and has pleaded not guilty.

Online social networking sites are a fine line to walk, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black said.

"Every kid has one, and we want to build a relationship," Black said. "You want them to be comfortable talking with you. However, there has to be that line you don't want to cross."

Besides recommending that teachers not give out personal e-mail addresses or cell phone numbers, the union also strongly suggests they not have MySpace pages that are open to students.

As for accidental access to pornography during a lesson, Black offered a simple solution: "If you have not clicked this link to see where it is going, you have no business showing it to your kids," she said.

Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, is dedicating the group's next newsletter to the technology topic. It will deal with everything from kids using cell phones and YouTube videos to teachers who send text messages to students.

"The last several years, as a younger and younger group comes into teaching and more technology has become available, it has just become one of the issues we're having to deal with," Lyons said.

Nancy Willard, who runs the Oregon-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, said teachers also should have enough information about technology's pitfalls to teach students how to react appropriately.

That should start in kindergarten, she said, with the first lesson being how to turn off a computer monitor if "yucky stuff" appears on the screen. And it will happen, she warned, as filtering software can't keep up.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

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