Do GCPS Website Blockers Reveal Structural Bias?

This+filter+screen+is+what+faculty+and+students+see+when+trying+to+access+prohibited+sites.

This filter screen is what faculty and students see when trying to access prohibited sites.

UPDATE: This article was updated 2/6/21 at 10:39 AM to include the statement from board member Dr. Tarece Johnson.
UPDATE: This article was updated 2/8/21 at 12:37 PM to include additional explanations on the process of unblocking sites.  


On Wednesday, it was discovered Gwinnett County Public Schools filtered the official website for the Black Lives Matter organization.  While that website is no longer filtered, an investigation into filtered sites has found that liberal-leaning organizations are more likely to be filtered than conservative ones. 

The Gwinnett School board has blocked sites dealing with advocacy, abortion, immigration, and race. While the blocked sites labeled as advocacy groups are few in number, the pattern shows that they consist mainly of left-leaning ideas. Students are more often censored from sites supporting pro-choice abortion stances, in favor of immigration, and advocating for racial justice. Censoring these sites is counterproductive to the purpose of education. Instead of allowing students to support their own social stances, students are not allowed to access these sites and organizations and make their own educated decisions. 

A GCPS Highschool geography teacher discovered this issue. She stated, “I wanted to add a folder for students to access information about Black History month on their own time.  I wanted to include links from the Black Lives Matter organization website.” When this teacher had finally arrived at the site, she noticed it had been blocked with no ability to access the site.

“I was shocked, especially since it is Black History Month; however, part of me wasn’t shocked due to the county’s lack of equitable practices,” says the geography teacher. This “lack of equitable practices” may be referring to instances where students and teachers expressed concerns with racial equity at recent GCPS Board Meetings.  

The Black Lives Matter movement has existed for years and gained national attention throughout last summer. This action raises questions. Because the movement had meant for the inclusion of Black people to be treated equally, it can be concerning how the county bans this official site for the organization. The teacher who noticed the first signs of this filter says, “For the county to choose to block that site, [it is] a conscious decision… that the Black Lives Matter organization is a threat to our students when the movement is focused on equity.”

This teacher has reached out to Dr. Tarece Johnson, a member of the GCPS board who promotes diversity and equity.  Dr. Johnson stated she “reached out to the Superintendent to ensure equitable access to sites for educational purposes and to remove sites listed as ‘hate groups'” by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.  She further stated she will “continue to advocate for, create, and support policies that ensure equity for everyone,” and will “do [her] best to pursue what is right for all humanity.  Any inequity is not right, therefore we must all do what we can to dismantle systemic equities.”

You can read Dr. Johnson’s complete statement at the end of this article.

We investigated websites that were filtered as “Advocacy Organizations.”  This is the complete list of organizations we found to be filtered as of publishing.

While the county seems to block websites dealing with advocacy groups, websites like GeorgiaCarry.org and National Right to Life, were not blocked. These two websites have similar characteristics as the other Liberal websites but seem to be less likely to be caught in the filter. Conversely, GCPS did not block websites like American Border Patrol, American Family Association, Dustin Inman Society, and the Minuteman Project. These are recognized hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center and are noted for using rhetoric that is hateful towards immigrants and LGBTQ people.  Specifically, the American Border Patrol and the Minuteman Project are militia groups, and the Minuteman Project’s website advocated in favor of the capitol protest which turned into a riot on January 6, 2021. 

The website filters are maintained by the Department of Information Management and Technology.

According to the student/parent handbook, Reasons for filtering websites include:

Access, upload, download, and distribute pornographic, hate-oriented, profane, obscene, or sexually explicit material.

The handbook explains that accessing websites that are not filtered, but which violate school policies can result in consequences.  The handbook does not explain what actions students or parents can take if they wish to have a website removed from the filter.  

Extensive searching through school files and websites did not result in providing a clear explanation of how to remove a website from the school’s network filters.  In the block message, it simply states to “contact your local support staff,” or to “contact your local technology support.”  For students wishing to access a site they believe is appropriate and does not violate school or county policies, there is no clear method to do so.  Most students are not likely to know who their local technology support staff are. 

Mrs. Anna Colley is the Local Technology Support Coordinator for Parkview High School, and explained that filtering exists at three levels.  “Students have level 1 access, teachers have level 2 access, and technology support staff have level 3 access. Level 1 is the most restricted access. I know that the process starts with filtering software that filters based on certain categories, but I don’t know a lot about that process or what the blocked or open categories are. That is done at the county level.”

In terms of requesting a website be added or removed from the filter, Mrs. Colley stated Teachers can make the request “by submitting a ticket for tech support. Those requests go our Technology Support Technician, who sends the request to the principal.  If the principal approves the request, it then goes to district support for review and to be unblocked if approved.”  She also notes different schools may have access to different sites.  “Unblock requests are done on a school-by-school basis, so as requests are approved and the basic filtering is modified, each school ends up with its own list of approved sites.”

In a letter regarding student hotspots, created this year, the county writes: 

In the event that the filter fails to block access to material you believe is harmful to minors, or it blocks access to material that is appropriate for instructional or other related purposes, please contact Ken McClung, 678-301-6415, [email protected] and provide him with the website and explain why it should be blocked or why access should be permitted.

The filter previously made headlines, first in the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2011 for blocking access to LGBT related websites. At that time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia (ACLU) intervened, stating it violated the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act.

Then Gwinnett County Public Schools spokesman, Jorge Quintana, responded saying that the school system filters according to guidelines set in the Children’s Internet Protection Act federal law (CIPA). A student or employee can request to access a specific site for a “legitimate instructional or work purpose.”

However, in a letter response, ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Chara Fisher Jackson said that the LGBT filter could be disabled without violating CIPA.

Additionally, she criticized the procedures students and employees must go through to access a blocked site.

“The ‘LGBT’ filter is designed to discriminate against LGBT viewpoints,” the letter stated, “There is no reason why the burden should be placed on a vulnerable population to affirmatively request that school administrators unblock websites for LGBT resources that they already have a legal right to access.”

The LGBT filter has since been removed.

In 2014, the AJC covered filtered websites as student technology use became more prevalent, and students were beginning to receive school-provided devices in counties across the state. 16-year-old Kathryn Keegan who then attended Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology, explained that sometimes students were instructed to watch educational videos on YouTube. The problem was the school’s Internet filtering system blocked the popular video-sharing website. “I think they (school officials) should kind of narrow down what sites we really do need, such as YouTube,” said Keegan. 

As schools across Georgia were expanding technological use for students, educators had an increasing struggle with how much of the Internet should be censored. Additionally, educators stated that blocking too much can create barriers to learning and acquiring digital literacy skills vital for college and career readiness. But also, school districts explained that it was to avoid controversy and complaints from some parents.

School districts are still trying to find the right balance, between wide access to instructional information and protection from inappropriate or harmful content. Education advocates 

Given that this is not the first time GCPS has proven to be right-leaning, the issue of equity has become a major complication. When comparing the accessibility between right and left-leaning websites, it’s apparent that there is a disparity between the resources available. In addition, the actions of the county have also been subject to widespread public disapproval. After many individuals spoke out about their concerns regarding the lack of equity, it is evident that unless the board can find a middle ground or means of being impartial, they will continue to face criticism and backlash moving forward. 

 

Dr. Johnson’s Complete Statement:

Biases lead to structural inequities and we must do what we can to ensure our systems are neutral and fair. As a board member, I will continue to support the empowerment and upliftment of all of the voices of our students. I appreciate the courage of these students to reveal injustices and do what is right for all people.

As a board member, I will continue to advocate for, create, and support policies that ensure equity for everyone. As a teacher, activist, and diversity, equity, inclusion, & justice professional, I will do my best to pursue what is right for all humanity. Any inequity is not right, therefore we must all do what we can dismantle systemic inequities.

I have reached out to the Superintendent to ensure equitable access to sites for educational purposes and to remove sites that are listed as “hate groups” by the SPLC & ADL.

I hope for people in our community and nation to do the interpersonal work to be conscious of their own biases that may lead to inequities. We all have biases and it takes deliberate learning and hyper consciousness to ensure our biases do not negatively impact anyone. I support President Biden’s statement in his inaugural address, “We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways, but the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with — one of the gravest responsibilities we had.
Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up, all of us? It’s time for boldness for there is so much to do.”

All of us must be of courage, face the brutal facts, and take actions to ensure equity, justice, peace, and commUNITY.