Students and teachers discuss UAHS’s Internet filter and VPNs

by Sophie Yang, ’19

When accessing the Internet at school, students often come across sites that redirect to warning pages or simply never load. Usually, UAHS’s Internet filter blocks distracting sites; however, it sometimes prevents students from completing assignments or relaxing between classes.

Blocked sites come with both advantages and disadvantages, but they are a necessity at UAHS: Ohio law requires schools to block access to “materials that are obscene or harmful to juveniles.”

Click to Approve

According to district technology support technician Adam Caudill, blocked sites are chosen in multiple ways.

“Either a faculty member can specifically request that a site is blocked or unblocked or sites are blocked by keywords,” Caudill said. “A lot of sexual, violent or drug-related [keywords] are blocked.”

After receiving a request to block or unblock a site, the technology department takes anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours to process the request.

In the past, AP Government teacher Doug Rinehart has submitted requests to unblock sites by “clicking to approve.” Rinehart said that coming across blocked sites in class is sometimes limiting.

“If [the filter] restricts students from finding information, that could possibly be detrimental,” Rinehart said.

However, Rinehart believes that filtering is a part of having technology deeply embedded in education at UAHS.

“I think the filter’s not perfect, and we just try to improve it on both what we block and what we unblock.”

District Technology Support Technician Adam Caudill

“In a school setting, we want to make sure students are not exposed to [certain] imagery or language,” Rinehart said. “In the same way that a parent might not let their kid navigate to certain sites, I think we exercise that judgment as well.”

Often, students have issues with watching educational content on YouTube. District technology support technician Monica Woodworth suggests two solutions for blocked YouTube videos.

“There’s a common thread for 70 percent of the problems students have with YouTube,” Woodwoth said. “[Either] they’re not logged into Chrome, or if they are logged into Chrome, they’re in their personal account and not their uaschools account.”

The list of blocked sites at UAHS is constantly changing as the tech department updates its filter and responds to requests.

“I think the filter’s not perfect, and we just try to improve it on both what we block and what we unblock,” Caudill said.

The Role of VPNs

Many UAHS students use VPNs, or virtual private networks, to circumvent the site restrictions at school.

However, VPN is against school policy. UAHS’s Students’ Rights and Responsibilities Handbook states that students may not “attempt to go around district filters and other protection devices.”

UAHS student Joe Schmoe often uses VPN at school, mostly to access YouTube for music and view other blocked sites during lunchtime. Despite being aware that VPN was against school policy, Schmoe chose to continue using it.

“Basically everyone uses [VPN] now,” Schmoe said. “No one cares; teachers see it all the time. I’m like, ‘Oh, hold on, let me turn off my VPN,’ but they don’t care.”

However, Schmoe believes that using VPN doesn’t necessarily affect students’ ability to learn at school.

“I think [the teachers] do care if we’re getting distracted,” Schmoe said. “That’s what matters, not the blocked websites.”

“I think [the teachers] do care if we’re getting distracted. That’s what matters.”

Student Joe Schmoe*

Using VPN to access more distracting sites often sidetracks students. However, sophomore Mallory Sharp believes that students should be able to choose whether to work class assignments.

“If you have extra time at the end of a class, it’s nice to be able to go on social media without having to use your data,” Sharp said. “If you choose not to be productive, then that hurts you — it should be your choice.”

The tech department has previously found some students using VPN, and they could have received disciplinary action.

“Our filter doesn’t always keep up with [the VPNs], but it can do anything from having no effect to having all internet cut off to your device for a period of time,” Caudill said. “The tech department is not trying to police students specifically, but if it becomes a problem, we can erase the device or reset all the settings.”

The district is currently re-examining how it manages blocking and unblocking sites.

“Over the coming months to next year, [the filters] will probably drastically change,” Caudill said.

* denotes source who requested anonymity