(See update at the bottom of this story)
Last semester, Grace Wells opened up her school-issued laptop, logged into her student account to connect to Houston ISD's wifi network at Lamar High School and typed in PlannedParenthood.org. Instead of hitting the site's homepage – which links to pages on birth control, the morning-after pill, abortion, STD prevention and treatment, health insurance, and a box to plug in your zip code to find the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic – Wells got a message saying “Access Denied.”
“The site you are attempting to visit is blocked because it belongs to the following category: Abortion.”
Wells, who will start her senior year at Lamar in August, was taken aback. “I wondered what else was blocked,” she told the Press. So Wells started plugging in other URLs. It seemed everything Planned Parenthood-related was blocked, including the organization's info page explaining birth control options, everything from abstinence to pills, patches and condoms. She was denied access to Prochoice.org, the website for the National Abortion Federation, the professional association for abortion providers in North America.
Then, she discovered something curious: seems HISD doesn't block all abortion-related websites, just those that happen to be pro-choice. Wells typed out prolifeacrossamerica.org, and the home page for one of the largest anti-abortion groups in the country pulled right up.
When we asked HISD for an explanation this week, all district spokeswoman Ashley Anthony could say was that “Our district policy is in line with the federal Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA),” a law passed in 2000 meant to ensure that libraries and schools block or filter “minors' access to materials harmful to them,” like obscene or pornographic images.
Why, exactly, HISD would interpret CIPA to block access to Planned Parenthood or other pro-choice websites is unclear. When asked for their specific policy on how and when students are allowed to access abortion-related material on the web, HISD couldn't provide one (*see update at the bottom of this story). But when Wells first discovered pro-choice websites were blocked earlier this year, she took the matter to a friend who serves on the board of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. HISD ultimately provided Planned Parenthood this response:
“HISD allows all staff, high school and middle school students access to sites which provide information or arguments in favor of or against abortion, describing abortion procedures, offer help in obtaining or avoiding abortion, or provide information on the effects, or lack thereof, of abortion. It is blocked for elementary students, any generic account or generic student account and our guest networks since we will not be able to identify who is using the computer.”
While that sounds like a reasonable policy, that's not how it worked for Wells. “The expectations they set for someone to access sites like Planned Parenthood, I met them, and I was still denied access,” she said. Screengrabs Wells took of the “Access Denied” messages shows she'd connected to HISD's network with her student-specific account.
Wells says she's particularly concerned Planned Parenthood websites would be blocked, “considering 97 percent of their business is not related to abortion. … It's a medical resource, an informational resource, and there's a ton of information on their website that we're not allowed to see on campus that would be extremely helpful to us.” Moreover, she's troubled that pro-choice websites would be blocked when anti-abortion websites, like prolifeacrossamerica.com, aren't. Regardless of a person's stance on abortion, she says, students should have access to well-rounded information on the issue before deciding how they feel. “By blocking these sites, I feel like they're trying to make this decision for us," she said.
But ultimately Wells worries about other HISD students who don't have easy access to the Internet off campus. “The majority of HISD students are on free or reduced lunch, meaning they have a hard time even paying for their meals every day,” she said. “How should we expect they'll access this information outside a school campus? Many HISD students aren't privileged enough to have Internet access at home. And if they look this up on a high school campus, it's because they really need this information. And I'm afraid HISD is keeping it from them.”
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*UPDATE 6/17/15 @ 5:55 p.m.:
HISD spokeswoman Ashley Anthony just sent us this:
"While blocked at the elementary school level, the sites and subject matter in question should not have been blocked for students at the middle school and high school levels. IT will be reviewing internet filters for student accounts to ensure all settings are in compliance with district policy and administrative regulations. Below is our statement.
HISD is reviewing internet filters for student accounts to ensure the settings are in compliance with the district’s technology resources board policy and administrative regulations. The district uses filtering software to filter material considered inappropriate or harmful to minors. Websites that provide information about abortion are currently categorized as accessible for middle and high school students. This material, however, is blocked for elementary school students, as well as any student who may be logged into a HISD computer as a guest or through a generic student account that does not specify grade level.
There are a handful of subjects that are considered inappropriate and blocked across the district:
· Images or descriptions of sexual acts
· Promotion of violence
· Illegal use of weapons, drug use, discrimination, or participation in hate groups
· Instructions for performing criminal acts
· Online gambling"
Still no explanation why, if this was a simple IT mistake, an anti-abortion website that fits the filter description for elementary and middle schools (content related to abortion) was not blocked when Wells punched it into her computer.