Why student Cameron Samuels challenged their school’s internet filter and censorship

Product Updates December 2022-01

Cameron and their fellow students with a collection of banned books.Cameron Samuels (who uses they/them pronouns), graduated last year from Katy ISD in Texas. During Cameron’s senior year, they gained national prominence for speaking out against their discriminatory school internet filter and book banning. 

While Katy ISD is based in one of the most diverse counties in the U.S., voices have been rising up to limit the content learners can access in school. During Cameron’s freshmen year, they realized that the school internet filter blocked LGBTQ-affirming websites. Not only that, but the district also banned certain books related to LGBTQ stories, race and the Holocaust. These were moves that denied the identities of Cameron and other students in the district, and they decided to take a stand.

In the #StudentVoice Podcast, Cameron spoke to host Robert Bailey, VP of Hāpara about their experience. 

 

Why the school internet filter was not protecting students

When Cameron tried visiting an online LGBTQ news source their freshman year, they found that the website was blocked. The school internet filter characterized the website as “alternative sexual lifestyles: GLBT.” 

Cameron said this clearly showed that the school district did not want to support their identity. 

“I come from a background of having a queer identity that I struggled to navigate when I was younger. I was, I am still, on a huge journey to navigate that identity, and when a school that is supposed to be supporting my well-being and my success is blocking LGBTQ websites and removing books that affirm my queer identity, that shows that I am neglected,” said Cameron.

Further, one of the websites that the school internet filter blocked was The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is an organization dedicated to ending suicide among LGBTQ young people. It provides resources and immediate crisis support to young people.

A research brief by The Trevor Project estimates that LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider suicide than other young people. So why would a school web filter block a website that exists to help this vulnerable population of learners?

“These barriers are implemented by a public school, an educational institution meant to support all students. And that is not only discriminatory, but it is a matter of life or death when a student cannot access suicide prevention lifelines, affirming resources that are vital to students navigating their queer identities. LGBTQ youth are at utmost risk of mental illness, of suicide ideation, and that is so frustrating,” Cameron said.

What proponents of the web filter said

A representative of Katy ISD told the Texas Signal that their third-party web filter aligned with requirements of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) when blocking The Trevor Project’s website. The explanation was that the website includes a chat feature, and minors should not be communicating unmonitored with adults online.

Yet if that was the sole concern, it didn’t take into account that The Trevor Project chat application opens in a new window with a separate URL from the rest of the resources available on the website. Additionally, the chat feature provides life-saving support to young people.

The Trevor Project website explains the objective of their chat feature. “One accepting adult decreases the risk of suicide by 40% for LGBTQ young people. We provide LGBTQ youth with 24/7 crisis counseling via phone, text, and chat.”

Others have asked why learners can’t just visit LGBTQ-affirming websites outside of the school network. 

Cameron noted that not all learners have a personal device that can disconnect from Wi-Fi and use cellular data to keep their browsing history private. Some young people need to safely and privately explore resources as they figure out their identities, without parents tracking their browsing. 

“It’s not about how many hoops a student has to jump through to access a suicide prevention lifeline. It should be, how can we dismantle these barriers preventing a student from accessing mental health resources?”

First school board meeting into building a movement

Cameron wasn’t ready to speak out their freshman year when they first came across that blocked LGBTQ website. But in 2021, they returned to in-person classes after learning virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, as a senior, Cameron felt confident enough in their leadership skills to begin advocating. 

“It was then when I had that courage, that ability to bring this to the forefront, and I spoke up.”

At first, Cameron was the only student to say something about the school internet filter. “I was the only student publicly speaking up. There were so many who didn’t have the ability to publicly speak on this issue because their family, their friends, were not supportive of their queer identity, and they had to conceal that.”

Cameron decided to attend a school board meeting to bring up the issues learners were facing in the district. 

In an NBC News article, Cameron described that first school board meeting. They were the only student, and no one applauded after they spoke. “That was really frightening as I walked back to my seat after speaking and just saw people staring at me, but I realized that those stares were stairs to climb on.”

Cameron told Robert Bailey in the #StudentVoice podcast, “But eventually, my efforts inspired so many students to start speaking up.”

Cameron and other students advocated for LGBTQ websites to be unblocked and for banned books to be made available again to learners in the district. Students came together in full force, and supportive parents and educators joined them in packing school board meetings and signing a petition. They also distributed hundreds of banned books to young people.

The ACLU helped Cameron file a complaint of discrimination against the school district. This resulted in the school internet filter unblocking LGBTQ-affirming websites like The Trevor Project. In all, it took a year of advocating for the school district to unblock the websites. 

While many of the websites are still blocked in middle schools and elementary schools, high school learners in Katy ISD can now access the much-needed online resources. While there’s still work to be done, it’s a huge step in the right direction.

Cameron said, “We built that community where we were standing up for ourselves and for each other. And it amounted to so much change. We dismantled the internet filter. We had hundreds of books in the hands of students, and books were being put back on the shelves by the school district.”

They continued, “Student voices are powerful. A voice is powerful. And it is because of our voices being heard, that we are seeing these changes. We have to show up. We have to get involved in advocacy and stand up for ourselves, and we will see changes be made.”

Steps for selecting a non-discriminatory school internet filter

What can your school district do to ensure that learners’ identities are not disaffirmed in your educational setting? Your school internet filter should protect every learner and make resources available to help all learners feel safe and supported. Consider the following questions when selecting a non-discriminatory web filter for your K-12 district.

1. What are the company’s values?

When it comes to choosing a web filter for your school or district, it’s important to look into the company’s values and culture. What do they stand for and believe in when it comes to education? What types of initiatives do they support? 

Review their website and social media. Check out what other educators are saying about them. If their values and actions don’t align with putting students first, it’s not the right web filter for your learners. For example, if a company claims to support student wellness but its filter blocks resources for the most at-risk population, they aren’t truly dedicated to student wellness.

2. What predetermined blocked categories does the K-12 internet filter include?

Ask about the list of blocked categories that are already embedded in the filter. Is the school web filter affirming identities or discriminating against them? 

Robert Bailey explains, “If you put a category in there that just requires a click and doesn’t require a conversation outside of a tech department, it makes it easier [for a school district] to be able to say, ‘The company says that it’s a filter category that’s okay for us to use, so we might as well use it.’”

3. Can the school web filter understand nuance and context?

Some web filters automatically block websites and pages that are actually valuable to learning or mental health. But a web filter, such as Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara, that understands the context of a page means that more resources become available to students when they need them.

4. Can learners request to unblock a website? Can individual teachers authorize learners’ requests?

Is the school web filter prohibitive to learning? For example, let’s say a learner is performing research for a health class project. They click on a website that would benefit their research but find that it’s blocked. This could happen due to a website falling under a blocked category. 

Many web filters require an educator to send an unblock request to their IT department and wait for a response. At this point, learning stops.

Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara, though, allows the learner to click and send their teacher a request to unblock the website.

In real-time, the teacher can review the site, and if it’s one that will benefit the learner, the teacher can instantly approve the unblock request. They don’t need to wait for the IT department to evaluate the site and unblock it. After all, teachers know their students and their needs. Not only does this capability open up more learning opportunities, but it also gives students more agency in their education. 

5. Does it protect learners’ privacy when visiting LGBTQ websites?

Some web filter companies include a parent portal where parents can view all of their child’s online activity. To begin with, students may not have families who support their LGBTQ identities. Or students may not be ready to talk about it while they’re still on a journey to figure out their identities. So when parents automatically have access to information about LGBTQ sites their child has visited on a school device, that’s a violation of the student’s privacy.

Explore how to vet edtech tools to ensure they promote access for every kind of learner.

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