Opinion: FCPS Firewall Goes Too Far

Computers are one of the most used tools in the world. They also play a role in school, mainly used for work and as a source for educational purposes. With all of those educational tools, however, come games and countless other websites. Keeping students on task has become a constant struggle for teachers.  But Fairfax County’s response has given students new reasons to push back.  Rather than a distraction, it has now become a challenge.

In response to all of these distractions, FCPS has developed their firewall to the point where students can’t access much of anything and there are restrictions around installing additional apps, whether on the computer or into browsers.

To be fair to the county, they are legally required to have a firewall blocking some sites.  According to their Content Filtering information web page “The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA, passed in January 2001) requires all computers in FCPS with Internet access to be filtered.”  The law dictates that sites are those that are “judged pornographic or inciting crime, violence, or intolerance: topics deemed inappropriate for juveniles by the code of Virginia.”

When that law was written, middle school students only had occasional access to school computers. When COVID-19 forced schools to go into lockdown a year, schools had to rely on technology. Since then, the use of technology for academic purposes has expanded, though the website makes clear that the prime use of School computers is for advanced educational assistance.

In the current school year, 2021-2022, the county has blocked countless media links and websites within the browser. Some of those websites are games,web games in particular, as students were spending class time playing rather than doing their school work. In the beginning of the year, a student could simply search for whatever they wanted, and most times, it wouldn’t be blocked. Even if it were blocked, the students would find an unblocked link of the same game by various techniques.

This apparently caught the attention of the county and school officials, because access to nearly anything suddenly became much more difficult. It seems Fairfax County upgraded and improved its Lightspeed software, which is developed with the flexibility to identify and eventually block sites deemed “inappropriate.”

With the firewall blocking most sites, the student workarounds were soon added to the list and blocked as well. No matter how many times the students tried getting some of the web games and websites on the blocklist back, Fairfax County would eventually block them.

A small portion of the students responded to the challenge by getting the same blocked apps back. Despite the hard resistance to the school computer’s limited accessibility to almost all apps, programs, and media, these students somehow managed to get some of them back.

The ways they managed to retrieve those databases remains unknown, but there is a reason behind all the efforts to bring all these sources back.  According to the students, who have asked to remain anonymous,  resisting the firewall a direct response to the feeling that the  blocking has gone too far.

“The part that I dislike is that the school feels so compelled to block entertaining sources that they have blocked many other sources that don’t fit in the definition of a game,” stated an anonymous FCPS student.  As an example, the student said “Replit.com is an online IDE, which is used for programming and coding. They blocked that for some reason.” In Journalism, many of the sites we need to research our articles or source creative commons pictures are also blocked.  In conclusion, from the students’ point of view, it has come to the idea that the restrictions are too much.

What should be censored on School Computers surely is up for debate, which is why there is a lot of controversy on that topic. Though schools have the capability to request certain sites to be unblocked, the ability to make that request lies with educators, who are often too busy, or simply don’t know how to go about it. One idea that would give students more agency would be to have students suggest and request what could be unblocked in a more flexible way.

“They could have a form on the tech support page that can complain about sites that [students] believe should be unblocke,” suggested our source.

It’s even possible that by engaging students in the decision making, the county could gain valuable information on how students are getting around the system.  One thing is certain, the more teens feel targeted by censorship, the harder they push back.