by Ella Hurwitz, Liv Middien & Lily Zarr, News Reporters & News Editor
graphic by Caitlin Ang
When senior Ryan Chitty attempted to research Chinese viewpoints on current events while at school, he said he discovered that every website he tried to access was blocked.
All devices connected to a Newton Public Schools (NPS) network are subject to its filtering, which sometimes blocks educational websites to the detriment of students like Chitty.
NPS also records student activity and stores it on backup servers, which Steven Rattendi, NPS’ Director of Information Technology & Library Services, said is required for the district to receive federal funding.
“We accept money from the federal government, which requires us to limit student access to certain sites like pornography, illicit activity and a couple of other categories that they specifically require us to filter,” he said. “We also do it because in many cases parents want us to, and we think it’s a good idea for eliminating distractions in the classroom as much as we possibly can.”
Installed on all school-issued Chromebooks is Deledao, a web filtering software that monitors student activity and blocks certain content.
Although all student activity is recorded, Rattendi said that administrators only review individual students’ activity over a specific period of time when an incident requiring review occurs.
“If you look at the rights and responsibilities handbook and student policies on technology use, students don’t actually have any rights to privacy on our network or on our equipment. Technically, there is nothing there that legally stops us from looking at what students are doing if we wanted to,” he said. “With that said, we don’t actively monitor. We are only monitoring [if] an incident occurs.”
Despite disliking that the district tracks his activity, senior Fahran Bajaj said that he has more of an issue with the blocking software.
“When I used my Chromebook, I tried not to do anything weird on it. … It is a little unsettling though that I can’t delete my history, but I wasn’t ever too concerned about that,” he said. “I was more annoyed about the blocking software. There are certain Google Drive features that I couldn’t use because my school account was blocked from them, and that was the only account I could use on my Chromebook.”
When Bajaj wanted to use Google Colab, a programming application that is blocked by default on Chromebooks, he and a parent had to sign a consent and release form to unblock the application for his account.
Junior Leah Vashevko, who programmed NSHS Site, a school schedule generator, said that restricting some of these websites is unreasonable.
“Whenever they try to block social media, it doesn’t really work because you realize that logically social media [can be] for school-related things and it makes things a lot more convenient,” she said.
Sophomore Ellie Lemberg said that the content restrictions have made completing schoolwork inconvenient when she’s working on her school-issued Chromebook.
“In eighth grade, we were trying to watch this video about pandas for some sort of science project. That video was under restricted mode, even though it was literally just the day in the life,” she said.
Junior Kevin Yang, who co-created abSENT, an app that notifies students when their classes are canceled, said that these limits pose a problem to students who only have access to a school-issued computer.
“A problem arises when a student does not have another computer to use. … Having a Chromebook, which tracks everything that you do, and that being the device that allows you to access the internet is a little creepy,” he said. “Something needs to be done about that. If you’re not on the school network, the information should not be trapped.”
Although he supports some restrictions at school, Chitty said that there should be a convenient way for students to get educational websites unblocked.
“There are people who can’t be totally trusted to do whatever at school, but it cuts out too many websites,” he said. “[There should be] a system that makes it easier for students to report when there are websites that are blocked that shouldn’t be.”
Rattendi said that NPS is thoughtful about the content it blocks, and above all, tries to support students’ proper use of technology.
“For the most part, we actually strike a balance between trying to help kids navigate things versus completely blocking them. There are lots more things that we could block,” he said. “At the high school level, we do allow a certain degree of social media. We don’t at the middle school. … It’s like the different progression of what students are allowed to do along the way.”