The wrong kind of sex education

If school officials in Maine were using tax dollars to buy pornographic videos and distribute them to children, the public would be outraged. And I don’t mean the kind of smoldering, muttering-curses kind of outrage so many of us already feel toward the government. I’m talking about the grab-a-pitchfork, light-a-torch and join-the-angry-mob-marching-on-Augusta kind of outrage.

Of course, Maine’s superintendents, principals and teachers are not giving youngsters X-rated DVDs. In reality, what they’re doing is much more outrageous than that. School administrators are giving children as young as 11 unrestricted and effectively unmonitored access to the Internet, where they are free to see untold millions of pornographic videos and images online using taxpayer-funded laptops and tablets, like the iPad.

As detailed in the cover story I wrote for this month’s issue of The Bollard (“SeXXX Education: How Maine schools open doors to porn”), Maine’s much-lauded laptop program may or may not be helping students learn to read, write and do arithmetic — standardized test results don’t indicate much, if any, progress in these areas since the program began. But the devices most certainly do give curious kids very graphic lessons about the birds and the bees.

Maine is one of the most lax states in the country in terms of its efforts to block and monitor access to inappropriate or illegal websites on school-issued computers. And in Portland, the state’s largest school district, administrators and school board members either display a stunning ignorance about this issue or refuse to candidly discuss it at all.

This is not to say the people running Portland’s schools are unaware of the problem. In the spring of 2012, the district installed Internet-filtering software on all the Dell laptops that were then being provided to the city’s high school students. The software was supposed to block access not only to porn sites but to social media sites like Facebook, as well as YouTube and other popular online destinations not strictly considered educational.

The filtering software was installed at the request of “many parents and teachers,” the Portland Press Herald reported, but without any discussion or vote by the school board or any opportunity for public comment. Some due diligence and public input could have been helpful, because the costly filtering program was a pitiful failure. Students angered by the district’s attempt to censor their surfing quickly figured out how to foil the filter, and the software soon became obsolete, anyway — school officials in Portland decided to ditch the Dell laptops this year in favor of iPads that have no filtering software whatsoever.

Internet access on school grounds is filtered to block sites deemed obscene. Most districts have to limit access on campus to comply with federal law, but that law does not apply when the devices are off school property and unconnected to a district’s network.

Off campus, controlling Internet use becomes the parents’ problem. Problem is, most parents don’t fully understand the ways a device like the iPad can access the Internet, or all the ways students can conceal their Internet browsing history — for example, by selectively deleting pages they’ve viewed from the history or by browsing in a mode that records no history at all. In Portland, that’s largely because the administrators, principals and teachers don’t understand this stuff, either. Their “solution” is to warn students not to look at porn and warn parents not to leave their kids alone with these devices.

Part of the impetus behind Maine’s pioneering laptop program was to get computers into the hands of kids whose families couldn’t afford to have a computer at home. Now that most students can take these devices off school grounds, it’s those same kids who are most at risk of being exposed to the Internet’s dark side, because their working-class parents (or parent) can’t afford to be home with them after school.

No generation has ever had such easy access to so much hardcore pornography. This unprecedented access to porn, fostered by our public schools, has physical, psychological and social impacts on young people that our society is just beginning to recognize, and what we’ve seen so far ain’t pretty: compulsive consumption, ruined relationships and shattered self-esteem are just a few of the least damaging consequences.

My best advice to parents: Take the time to figure out the device the school has given your child, talk to your child about responsible browsing, and keep your pitchfork sharpened and ready.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.