Lawmaker wants better Internet filtering on school devices

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SALT LAKE CITY — When Courtney Stratton was summoned by her 7-year-old child's school principal, she wasn't sure what to expect.

Much less, she didn't know how to handle the news that her child had been exposed to pornographic material on a mobile device used in classroom instruction.

What added to her frustration was that school personnel didn't seem to know what to do about it.

"It took me a minute to cope with what was being said, but as I listened, I realized that there weren't procedures or protocol to handling this," Stratton said. "My main concern was to ensure the well-being of my child at that point, but I did have the question as to why this type of material was available and easily accessed at a public school and on a public school device."

Later, Stratton learned from other parents that their children had reported similar experiences. Many young students, she said, had access to open Internet searches, which yielded inappropriate content from basic search phrases that children would use in a classroom.

"It bugged me," she said. "I was told, 'This isn't happening often.' My thought is it shouldn't really be happening, but with the nature of Internet, it's a tricky thing."

While Stratton says she doesn't doubt the quality of her child's school or the potential benefits of using technology in the classroom, there are measures that need to be taken to improve the safety of Internet use.

"My school is a very good school. We have good people teaching at this school," she said. "But if we are going to have the technology there, and we are, it needs to go hand-in-hand with creating a safe technology and Internet environment."

Lawmakers unanimously recommended a bill Monday seeking to foster such an environment as more and more schools in Utah implement classroom technology programs.

HB213 would require local school community councils to ensure that adequate Internet filtering is in place for infrastructure at the school and for school-owned devices while they're on and off campus.

The bill also requires schools to provide guidance to students "on safe technology utilization and digital citizenship that empowers a student to make smart media and online choices; and a parent or guardian to know how to discuss safe technology use with the parent or guardian's child."

Bill sponsor Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said the initiative would help address a growing need for a secure online environment for students.

"This bill stems from some circumstances and a culture that we're experiencing as we see the rapidly changing technological landscape before us," Stratton said.

Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said all school districts in Utah have already implemented filtering systems "in one form or another," but that schools should plan for the future as technology changes.

"I think it's important and useful that the bill is written broadly," Smith said. "My suspicion is that over the next five or six years, we will see fewer and fewer laptops, fewer and fewer desktops. We'll be on something other than an iPad, so it's important that we have some flexibility looking forward."

But some say the bill would impose statewide restrictions on local districts in how they find solutions to the problem. Heather Gardner, a school teacher and mother of five children, said the bill would be intrusive on how parents teach and raise their children.

"Leave that to the parent to decide if their child acts inappropriately or is exposed to something inappropriate how they are going to handle that, not to a community council which is legislated," Gardner said. "I feel this bill takes responsibilities away from the parent."

Stratton said the intent of the legislation is to provide additional resources for parents, not rules for them to follow.

"The intent of this legislation is to empower parents at the local level," he said.

The bill now awaits approval in the House. Email: Twitter: MorganEJacobsen

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