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Understanding the legal implications of using web filters in K-12 schools

Are you considering a web filter for your school or district? Explore the laws related to web filters in K-12 to ensure that your learners are protected.
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School and district leaders are obligated to protect the learners, staff and educators within their jurisdiction. As K-12 schools increasingly rely on online resources in day-to-day instruction, safety takes on new proportions. A web filter for schools is commonly used to provide this safety for everyone who uses devices connected to the internet. 

With filtering and blocking software becoming a mainstay in public education institutions, it is important to understand the legal implications of these tools. Additionally, we will explore other ways filtering products support the school community.

Which laws that protect school children involve technology?

While students are being educated in publicly-funded schools, it makes sense that government entities establish laws these institutions must follow. Technology solutions now support the task of enforcing laws that protect children and education communities. 

There are three federal laws protecting children in the school setting. One covers personal information collection for marketing to children, while another protects student education records. The third is the Children’s Internet Protection Act or CIPA. It helps prevent students from accessing inappropriate content while learning online and is administered by the Federal Communications Commission. 

Why are K-12 schools required by law to filter the internet?

Most people know that content filters help prevent students from accessing inappropriate content online. Certain types of content could have negative consequences for learners as they grow and develop. This is increasingly important as school 1:1 device use becomes more common in classrooms with younger learners. 

CIPA requires schools or libraries eligible to receive discounts through the E-rate program to adopt and implement an internet safety policy. Most educational institutions in this category simplify their compliance by purchasing and using a web filter from a reputable company. 

What are CIPA guidelines for filtering?

Under CIPA, public schools are required to follow guidelines to prevent minors from viewing harmful content online. This responsibility includes blocking or filtering access to inappropriate content. Content deemed inappropriate in CIPA guidelines are obscenity, child pornography and content harmful to minors. This also includes content that is violent, sexual or lacking in educational value.

CIPA guidelines cover:

  • The safety and security of minors using email and other forms of direct online communication
  • Unlawful activities by minors online such as hacking 
  • Using, disclosing and disseminating personal information regarding minors

Additionally, K-12 schools are required to monitor the online activities of learners with software such as Hāpara Highlights. Schools should also teach K-12 learners cyberbullying awareness and how to behave appropriately online. This includes how to interact appropriately with others on social media websites, email and the like, which falls under the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. 

Beyond CIPA, increased cyber safety for schools  

CIPA forms a legal backbone for student safety and well-being. Schools and districts are expected to fill in the rest. This includes having specific rules and guidelines tailored to the needs of their particular school community.  

Before they access the internet at school on either a school or personal device, learners are expected to sign an Acceptable Use Policy. This agreement must outline responsible use and the consequences if a learner fails to comply. 

Exceeding what is required by CIPA can help increase student safety. Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara is one web filter for schools that takes protection further than legally required. It blocks ads and tracking and also anonymizes learners’ Google searches. The fact that this web filter screens each webpage in real time gives schools additional safety. This cloud-based AI browser filter analyzes images, videos and text. It is agile enough to immediately blur inappropriate content that shows up in student search engine results.

Can school web filters be too restrictive?

Restricting content that learners have a constitutional right to view is one of the cons of web filters in schools, according to the American Library Association. This can happen when criteria set by the school district are overly restrictive or the web filter misclassifies and blocks educational content. 

Students’ ability to research and learn online can be negatively affected by overly restrictive policies. Additionally, overblocking prevents learners from accessing certain sites or certain keyword searches. Some searches have important consequences for student well-being.

How to integrate flexibility into school web filtering

CIPA leaves plenty of room for interpretation and school discretion. The degree of blocking depends on the web filtering product and implementation by the school. Yet determining what content falls into the three categories is not always clear cut. Many schools and districts block more than required by CIPA. For example, games are often blocked to keep learners on task.

To avoid extremes, it’s beneficial to find a web filter for schools that gives flexibility. Select one that does not over-filter content but instead allows the school plenty of room for customizing their own vision of what should and should not be blocked.

Furthermore, it is advantageous to use a smarter type of web filter designed to distinguish among the content shown without needing to block entire categories.

Choose companies and products that strike a healthy balance

The key to teaching kids digital citizenship is to balance between access and protection. A web filter that supports digital citizenship gives educators, not just tech admins, the ability to set parameters. Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara, allows educators to approve student requests to unblock. Being able to request to play on an otherwise blocked gaming site after finishing assignments is one way to give learners opportunities to make choices and practice digital citizenship skills.

Select a web filter that supports all K-12 students

Every learner deserves a safe learning environment where they feel valued and heard.

Select a web filtering company that truly supports student wellness by allowing access to resources that are proven lifelines for at-risk student populations

Districts should inquire about the list of blocked categories already embedded in the filter, explains Robert Bailey, Hāpara VP of Revenue. The next question they should be asking is, “Does the school web filter affirm identities or discriminate against them?” 

How can web filtering impact student mental health 

Since 2021, the mental health issues affecting children and youth in the U.S. have drawn significant attention from the Department of Education. Situations related to mental health and wellness can build up under the surface for learners. Unfortunately, adults cannot always know what is going on for the young people they are responsible for. 

Not all filters support student wellness

Student wellness alerts can help schools provide learners with supports that help them navigate wellness challenges. Deledao ActivePulse, presented by Hāpara, monitors students’ website visits and email activities.

When students exhibit evidence of possible self-harm or danger to others online, designated staff members at the school receive an alert. This could be anyone qualified to respond to student wellness concerns such as a counselor, teacher or principal. 

Wellness concerns can cover issues such as:

  • Suicide and self-harm
  • Cyberbullying
  • Toxic language

This allows staff to respond in a timely fashion. They can easily investigate and intervene when students have wellness-related issues. It is important to have a planned escalation process in place should a wellness alert arise.

Key takeaways

✔️ A school internet filter should protect every learner and make resources available to help all learners feel safe and supported. 

✔️ Schools must find the correct balance in terms of access to harmful content and lack of access to support for situations involving mental health. 

✔️ Not all web filters are created equal nor are all web filter companies. 

✔️ The importance of student mental health cannot be overemphasized, and student wellness alerts provide a way for schools to support learners.

Explore how schools use a web filter and screen monitoring to keep students safe and teach digital citizenship.

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