T.H.E. Focus :: May 15, 2008

Web Filtering in K-12 Schools Takes on New Urgency

Little debate exists about the need to protect school-aged children from Internet sites that purvey violence, gambling, pornography, or other undesirable content. At home, the job of providing such protection falls on the shoulders of parents with watchful eyes. But in schools, where children can't be watched continuously, Web filtering is the responsibility of the IT dept. To avoid the potential for legal exposure and loss of government funding, schools are deploying Web filtering solutions with increasing urgency. Choosing an appropriate solution is crucial.

Public schools are subject to the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000, a federal law that imposes requirements on schools and libraries that receive funding through the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program. E-Rate partially underwrites the cost of telecommunications services and networking necessary for deploying technology into the classroom. Those requirements include blocking minors from accessing specific types of content, monitoring their online activities, and assuring their safety when using e-mail, chat rooms, and instant messaging. With schools and libraries eligible for E-Rate discounts of up to 90 percent, failure to comply with CIPA poses an enormous financial risk. Private non-profit schools with endowments of less than $50 million also are E-Rate eligible.

Though the time-honored practice of installing Web filtering software on individual computers is still popular, this method is now wholly inadequate. With a computer in every classroom, and dozens more in libraries, labs, and administrative offices, keeping each one updated with thousands of new URLs to block is impossible. Filtering software, designed for home use but brought into schools by well-meaning child-protection advocates, provides no easy way to create an aggregate log of students' online activities.

A software solution also leaves the door open to two often overlooked perils. As computers are moved or replaced, it's nearly impossible for IT to know where each is -- or even how many there are. Perhaps more troublesome are students' or teachers' laptop computers brought from home. Subject to CIPA while connected to the school network, it's unlikely they have filtering software installed.

The only way to comply with CIPA's filtering and monitoring requirements is with an appliance, a single hardware product that scrutinizes online activity for every computer on the network, blocks access to banned sites, logs activity, and is continually updated with URLs to block. Requiring almost no IT interaction and highly cost-effective, a Web filtering appliance is a comprehensive solution that guarantees complete, continuous coverage for every computer, regardless of operating system.

In Aurora, Colo., protecting the 1,500 students of Regis Jesuit High School is the responsibility of network administrator Kenny Ramos. Regis has chosen a particularly aggressive strategy of completely blocking specific social networking sites, including YouTube®, MySpace®, and Facebook®, in addition to interactive game sites and sites advocating violence, drugs, and gambling.

Regis demanded a solution able to receive URL updates throughout the day, instead of just once. "We chose an eSoft solution that met our requirement for continuous updating." Ramos is so confident in the eSoft appliance's filtering capability, he no longer generates a daily report of students' online activity and blocked site requests. As eSoft experts add thousands of blocked URLs to its master database every day, micro-updates are sent to customers' installed devices, requiring no administrative intervention.

With its limited IT resources, Regis also sought a way to simplify management of other security mechanisms, including antivirus, spam, intrusion protection, and VPN management. "Moving to the eSoft appliance consolidated all of those functions into one box." Spam and virus definitions are automatically downloaded in the same way blocked URLs are handled.

At St. Coleman Catholic School in Pompano Beach, Fla., automatic hourly URL updates are essential to providing a safe computing experience, says information systems technician Frank Wannop. "We configured our eSoft appliance to give more freedom to teachers and older students," assuring that the school's youngest children are fully shielded. "It's important to protect but not shackle ourselves by blocking legitimate news sites. Our eSoft installation gives us the flexibility to do this."

It's clear that the pressure -- legal, financial, political, and parental -- is on public and private K-12 schools to toughen Web site filtering. Installation of a modern, appliance-based solution from eSoft protects every connected computer with a continually updated database of blocked URLs, permitting obsolete workstation filtering software to be retired. Able to track student activity and generate reports, eSoft appliances comply with the mandates of CIPA, keeping E-Rate discounts safe. Combining antivirus, spam filtering, and intrusion protection with hands-free administration simplifies vendor relationships and allows refocusing of IT resources.