How Maine schools open doors to porn
by Chris Busby
Public schools in Maine pioneered the use of personal computers in the classroom. When the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, commonly known as the “laptop program,” launched in 2002, Maine became the first state in the nation — and home to one of the first education systems in the world — to put computers in the hands of every middle school student.
Over the past decade, Maine’s laptop program has been expanded to include high school students and extended to allow the use of school computers at home and elsewhere, even on weekends. With the introduction of iPad tablets this year, thousands of Maine students now have the very latest portable computing technology at their fingertips 24/7, including unrestricted and effectively unmonitored Internet access off school grounds.
These developments also put Maine at the forefront of what’s been called “one of the fastest-moving, most global experiments ever unconsciously conducted,” an experiment that unwittingly asks what happens when teens and pre-teens are given free, unlimited access to a limitless supply of pornography.
The most pressing question these days is not whether school children are viewing porn online. Recent surveys have routinely found that most girls and the vast majority of boys have seen pornography before age 18. Further research indicates that as many as one in five young males will become addicted to Internet porn, with potentially ruinous consequences to their sexual health and personal relationships, and equally disturbing consequences for the girls with whom they interact. Short of addiction, porn warps teens’ understanding of sex, making risky and aggressive (or even violent) behavior seem acceptable or desirable.
Teens are more susceptible than adults to addiction because their brains are still developing. But interest in porn, and exposure to it, typically begins earlier, in the pre-teen years — the age children enter middle school.
In Maine, just as children’s peaked curiosity about sex converges with the hormonal storms of puberty, the state hands them the means to view images and videos of a variety and depravity no previous generation could ever so easily see. And while the technology that enables this behavior makes it increasingly tempting and easy to hide, most schools and parents are still relying on the age-old defense against porn — strong words coupled with guilt — that has never been an effective deterrent.
There is technology available to schools and parents to limit access to inappropriate sites, which include not only the millions of porn pages, but those containing graphic images of extreme violence, sites that promote hate speech and terrorism, and Internet chat rooms and other social media trolled by sexual predators. But use of this technology is spotty nationwide, and relatively rare in more liberal states like Maine, where education officials give more consideration to the potential benefits of open access than the pitfalls it presents.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed by Congress in 2000, requires schools and libraries that receive discounted online access through a federal program to block or filter sites considered “obscene” or illegal. But CIPA only applies to browsing on school property. As soon as they step off campus, school-issued laptop or tablet in hand, maintaining kids’ online safety becomes their parents’ problem.
Problem is, most parents do not understand all the ways these devices can access the Internet, or how easy it is for kids to erase their digital footprints. In Portland, the state’s largest school district, school officials do a poor job educating parents about this issue, in part because they don’t understand the technology themselves. Their best advice is a warning that only causes more anxiety: Do not leave your child alone with this machine.
Elizabeth is the parent of two teenage girls who attend Portland schools. She was not aware that students can selectively erase entries in their Internet browsing history using the new iPads. “In fact, I was not aware that they had Internet access at home,” she said. “I think it would be a good thing to at least get some information out there to parents so they have the resources to monitor Internet use.”
“My daughter can’t bring her iPad up to her room, and I see where it is every night at bed so I know she’s not up there being tempted with whatever she might be tempted with,” said Derek, the parent of a ninth-grader at Casco Bay High School in Portland.
Derek had no idea that Google’s popular Chrome browser, which students are free to install on their iPads, gives them the option to browse “incognito.” During incognito browsing, there’s no need to delete illicit pages from the history, because they’re not recorded there in the first place. Other browsers commonly used by students have the same feature; in Safari and Firefox, it’s called “private” browsing.
When I introduced Derek to the concept of private browsing, he remarked, “If you know about it, probably 100 kids know about it, and it’s best that we know about it, too.”
“I’m not familiar with the iPad. I’ve never had one,” said Sarah, a parent whose daughter was given an iPad by her school this fall. “I know the kids probably are very savvy … but I would think if you delete stuff there would still be some sort of trail for every computer,” she said. “I thought there was always a way to track everything.”
The Portland school department’s official policy on Internet use gives parents the impression that browsing can be monitored off school grounds, and students are explicitly forbidden from erasing their history. But if you ask school officials how they know an item has been deleted, or whether they can tell browsing has been done privately, they admit they have no way to know.
We know most secondary-school students have watched pornography. We know they can and do access porn on devices provided by schools. So the most pressing question these days is: What are we going to do about it?
Portland’s pricey mistake
The extent to which Portland school officials are either ignorant of this problem or unwilling to discuss it publicly is shocking. The standard of accountability expected of students is far from being met by the administrators responsible for this program.
The parents quoted above are not just parents. Derek is Derek Pierce, the principal of Casco Bay High School. Though Pierce has a poor understanding of the device his school gives kids, he was willing to discuss the issue and has taken some small, proactive steps to address it. Neither Ira Waltz, principal at Deering High, nor Deborah Migneault, principal at Portland High, returned calls seeking comment.
Sarah is Sarah Thompson, an at-large member of the Portland school board who’s served since 2006. Elizabeth is Liz “Tilly” Holton, who was also elected by voters citywide to oversee the Portland schools, in her case since 2008. None of the other seven members of the board, including chairman Jaimey Caron, responded to interview requests.
School board member Justin Costa referred questions to Peter Eglinton, a former school board chairman who joined the district’s administration two years ago as its chief operating officer, at a starting salary of $115,000. Eglinton blew off numerous requests for comment, as did Superintendent Emmanuel “Manny” Caulk, who was hired last year at a starting salary of $137,500. Both claimed they were too busy to answer questions by phone or in person; questions e-mailed to Eglinton were ignored.
Caulk e-mailed a brief statement to The Bollard that said the district “follows policies similar to those of many other districts,” “takes precautions to supervise” students’ Internet use, and attempts to “educate students about appropriate use of this resource.
“We do our best to filter content in accordance with federal and state requirements,” he continued. “However, the district cannot reasonably prevent all instances of inappropriate computer use by students. We count on parents and guardians to be our partners in teaching their children how to be responsible digital citizens.”
In fact, school officials in Portland have tried and failed, miserably, to do much more than they are currently doing to control students’ online activities. In the spring of last year, two months before Caulk was chosen to succeed Jim Morse as superintendent, the district let it be known that it was installing Internet filtering software on all the Dell laptops then provided to high school students, and planned to do the same in the fall to the Apple MacBooks given to middle schoolers.
As reported in the Portland Press Herald, the software was installed specifically to block access to “pornography, social networking sites and video streaming sites.” The decision to purchase and install the software was made administratively, with no discussion or vote by the school board and no opportunity for public comment. The paper said the filtering was done at the request of “many parents and teachers.”
Eglinton told reporter Tom Bell that filtering the Internet off school grounds was required by law. That may be the case someday soon, but it was not true of CIPA at the time. The Federal Communications Commission, which is charged with enforcing the law, has been accepting public comment on the idea of off-campus filtering (or at least they were before the federal shutdown stalled the process), but the FCC has never required it.
The software Portland installed was made by Sophos, a cyber-security company based in Massachusetts. It supposedly blocked not only porn sites, but almost everything else not considered education-related, including Facebook, YouTube, “forums and news groups, games, dating sites, gambling sites and chat rooms,” the daily reported.
Portland’s attempt to block social-media sites off school grounds may have been unprecedented. An executive with Common Sense Media, a national organization that promotes responsible Internet use, told the Press Herald she was not aware of any other school that had imposed such a restriction. Common Sense Media’s resources are offered by most schools in Maine, but the organization does not promote the kind of blanket censorship the Portland district’s top brass tried to enforce last year.
The Los Angeles school district tried to institute a similarly strict filtering system when it rolled out its $1 billion iPad program this fall. The initiative devolved into chaos within a week, after hundreds of kids at the handful of high schools that initially allowed iPad use at home foiled the filtering system with a couple keystrokes. Panicked administrators rescinded the home-use policy and ordered all students to surrender the devices until practices can be reevaluated.
Portland’s iron-fisted cyber-security regime seems to have crumbled just as quickly. Enraged students easily bypassed the electronic barricades. Those in a position to know exactly what went wrong aren’t talking — Portland’s director of technology services, Trey Bachner, refused to respond to numerous requests for comment — but others in the field noticed.
“I didn’t quite work out,” Andy Wallace, the tech director for South Portland schools, said of Portland’s attempt to limit surfing. When news of the filtering program got out, “I think there was a comment online about four hours later explaining how to get around it,” he said.
The cost of purchasing and installing security software on well over 1,000 computers can approach or exceed six figures. It’s unclear how much this mistake cost Portland taxpayers, but we do know it hasn’t been repeated. The iPads that replaced Dell laptops in high schools this fall have no filtering software whatsoever.
South Portland has been giving students iPads for the past three years. There are about 1,500 in the hands of middle and high school students there, and like the devices across the bridge, no filtering software has been installed. “With the iPad in its current iteration, there’s no surefire way to filter them offsite in a way that can be controlled by the schools,” said Wallace. South Portland schools also explicitly prohibit erasing history, “but it’s a straw man,” Wallace conceded. “We ask them not to do it, but there’s nothing currently available that would stop them from being able to do that.”
“The key to safety and responsible online use is working with the parents and a teacher to educate the kids,” Wallace said. He noted that kids can access the Internet on many different kinds of devices these days, and can do so most surreptitiously on smart phones. “That’s the real battleground,” he said. “It’s what’s in their pocket, not necessarily what’s in their backpack.”
Auburn’s school district has given a similar number of iPads to students in grades seven through twelve this year. Mike Muir, the district’s Multiple Pathways director, agrees with Wallace that teaching responsible Internet use is more effective than trying to filter content. But his opinion is also informed by the knowledge that there is no effective way to block illicit sites off school grounds. “It’s almost technically impossible to shut them down using just a technical approach,” he said.
Auburn schools tried that once, said Peter Robinson, the tech director there. They made all the devices access the Web through what’s called a “proxy server,” but “it was very prohibitive in the way it interfered with our Internet traffic in general,” Robinson said. “And it got hacked.”
Crash course in porn
Doug Levin is the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, a nonprofit membership organization that promotes effective uses of technology in schools nationwide. He said administrators all over the country are struggling to figure out how to control their devices’ Web access off school grounds.
Levin said “community standards” most commonly determine how strictly districts attempt to limit access, and administrators are increasingly taking a conservative approach. “It’s easy for school districts to be conservative in this respect, because of the specter of something bad happening to a child, or getting sued,” he said.
Told that Portland’s school department has no effective monitoring or filtering system for off-campus iPad use, Levin remarked, “Maybe I’m not surprised it would be Portland that would act like that. That would be the other end of the spectrum.”
Wallace, South Portland’s tech guy, said salespeople for cyber-security firms have told him it’s difficult to get districts in this part of the country to buy their products. “They also say, ‘We can’t sneeze without making a sale in Texas.’ You know you ticked off your boss when you get the New England territory,” he joked.
People like Dawn Hawkins are not laughing. Hawkins is the executive director of Morality in Media, a national anti-porn organization. “This is actually becoming a much bigger problem,” she said. “I think people didn’t think about what was happening when they gave kids these devices.”
Hawkins acknowledged that filters are not infallible, but said “it’s one way to definitely decrease their exposure to his harmful content …. When people are saying their kids are going to get it anyway, it’s just a lazy excuse to not do anything.”
“We know it’s a huge, huge problem with the youth,” she continued. “This kind of material can ruin their lives. We’re finding so many people addicted to porn, engaging in dangerous activity, like group sex acts, that at any age is not safe …. Sex trafficking, prostitution, rape, sexual violence — all of that is a lot more prominent when pornography is involved.”
Hawkins noted that it’s difficult to scientifically study the effects of Internet porn because researchers have a hard time assembling a control group of young male subjects who don’t watch smut online.
Educator Gary Wilson made the same point about control groups in a widely viewed TED talk he gave on the subject last year, titled, “The Great Porn Experiment.” (The quote at the beginning of this article was taken from his presentation.) However, Wilson demonstrated that scientists have found porn’s effect on the brain is similar to that of alcohol and cocaine. As with other addictions, people hooked on porn go through a “cycle of desensitization” in which ever-more novel and shocking experiences are sought out to satisfy cravings caused by a growing tolerance for pornographic imagery.
Unlike the old days, when the amount of porn a kid could access on any given afternoon was usually limited to the sticky pages of a Playboy, today they have easy access to millions of pornographic pictures and videos online. The ability to repeatedly view novel sexual content with a click is very recent, but it triggers genetically conditioned responses humans evolved over the ages, pulling untold thousands of today’s kids into a cycle of dependence, according to Wilson.
Wilson said kids with “arousal addiction” problems tend to display symptoms similar to attention-deficit disorder and depression, and are often misdiagnosed by therapists as a result. In advanced cases, young porn addicts experience erectile dysfunction. Unlike grampa’s ED, the youth version involves neural pathways in the brain, not blood flow below the belt, so pills can’t reverse it. Luckily for them, after several months without porn, the dysfunction dissipates.
What parents can do
It’s easy for people like Superintendent Caulk to say parents have to be “partners” in the effort to protect kids online. In practice, the challenge of doing so can be enormous.
First of all, adults need to know how and where school-issued devices can connect to the Internet, how browsing history can be erased or evaded, and what the school is capable of doing to limit or monitor online activity. If school board members and principals don’t know the answers to these questions, it’s not reasonable to expect that parents do.
In Westbrook, parents must attend an orientation session before student computers can be taken home. Portland has no mandatory orientation. Its outreach on this topic is limited to remarks during poorly attended parent nights, and warnings buried in handbooks and e-mails few parents bother to thoroughly read.
Adults who work full-time outside the home often have no choice but to allow their teenagers to be at home without supervision for at least a couple hours after school — and learning to be independent is a crucial part of growing up. Portland and other Maine districts often point parents to the website of a security company called OpenDNS (opendns.com), through which they can get free filtering software to install on their home Internet connection or network.
“Hopefully we’ve done a pretty good job helping families know what’s available,” said Jeff Mao, policy director of Maine’s laptop program. But that’s anybody’s guess. Mao said he doesn’t know how many families in the state have taken advantage of the free filtering software, and would not expect OpenDNS to reveal those figures to him or anyone else.
Parents can also install their own controls and filters on school-issued devices, but districts typically discourage that. “When they’re at school, they’re now being double-filtered,” Mao said. “It could block something the schools want them to see, and the school couldn’t undo that block. If it became widespread, it could become increasingly complex.”
As a last resort, parents can simply refuse to allow their child to take the laptop or tablet home — an option Caulk noted in the brief statement he provided. By doing so, your kid may be stigmatized by peers whose parents trust them with the cool new device, and any educational benefits bestowed by off-campus use would be lost.
But that assumes there are educational benefits to this practice. If that is the case, they have yet to show up in students’ test results. SAT scores released in October showed that though juniors in Maine high schools made small improvements, on average, in math and reading, writing and science scores dropped by several percentage points, and fewer than half of all those tested are performing at grade level in any of the four subjects.
The iPad’s ability to educate directly competes with its ability to distract. Though he knows some of his students watch porn, gaming and obsession with social media are the two addictions Principal Pierce said he’s most concerned about. And using the iPad to cheat is becoming an issue.
“There will always be technological loopholes like this ‘browsing incognito’ — once we figure that out, there’ll be another loophole,” Pierce said. “We can try to do our best to find those loopholes and educate people about [them], but I think we’re going to get more bang for the buck from pushing kids to work ethically.”
“We know you probably can find some way to be sneaky here,” Pierce said, hypothetically addressing a student. “But the point is, what are you really gaining from that? Either you’re wasting your time or you’re wasting your learning or you’re compromising your integrity, and none of those things are, in the long run, great strategies.”
Strong words. If only they were enough.