How are your schools protecting what’s on their computers?

Who's monitoring school tablets/laptops

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) -Technology is now one of the most important parts of your child’s education, which means our school systems invest millions of dollars each year in buying and updating laptops and tablets for our kids and their teachers to use. But how do we know these devices you’re paying for to look at inappropriate content?

The Children’s Internet Protection Act or CIPA requires school systems to use content filtering and monitoring for school devices if they want to get federal education money, and it lays out specific guidelines for what that should look like.

“I feel like it’s each district’s responsibility and we have a lot of resources that provide us professional development on that,” says Keith Price, Technology Director for Vestavia Hills Schools.

For Vestavia, that includes content filtering on their network and all school-owned devices plus firewalls and software on these tablets and laptops to monitor who sees what both on and off campus.

“With the reporting we receive, I feel like the public can be highly confident in the fact that our devices are being used for curriculum applications and we can provide reporting that shows what our students are using and how it’s being used related to our curriculum,” says Price.

Having multiple layers of protection is important, given what an audit done last year in Mississippi found. Auditors randomly tested 150 laptops from middle and high schools and found explicit content on 20 percent of them, and those are in school systems that are supposed to be following those federal filtering rules.

A Mississippi state audit found 20% of school computers had explicit content on them.
A Mississippi state audit found 20% of school computers had explicit content on them. ((Source: WBRC))

We asked the Alabama state auditor’s office if it performs similar audits, and the office told us it doesn’t because schools and colleges are exempt from the auditor’s responsibilities. The Alabama Department of Education told us, “the Alabama State Department of Education does not control or inventory any assets at any school system in the state. Our [the Department’s] taxpayer-funded equipment is monitored/inventoried by a team here. Our IT people restrict access to inappropriate content based on our appropriate use policy.”

Vestavia self-audits by doing random spot-checks on equipment and says the Alabama Supercomputer that provides internet access to most of the state's school systems includes advanced filtering and monitoring that is available to every district.

“They do a great job on updating us on the latest technologies and the latest threats to our network, and ways to keep students safe while they’re on our networks,” Price says.

We asked several metro Birmingham school systems how they filter and monitor their school laptops/tablets and here’s what we found:

Homewood:

- What kind of internet firewall/filters/monitoring the system provides for staff or faculty?

We us a customized solution for our firewall protection. We use iBoss for our content filtering and monitoring. In addition, we have established content filtering groups based on the job titles of the employees.

- What devices are used: iPads, laptops, desktops or phones?

Our students and employees have access to and use a variety of devices - Laptops (primarily Windows-based), Chromebooks, iPads, desktops, and smartphones.

- How do we prevent employees from accessing inappropriate content?

See #1 above. iBoss content filtering and monitoring done by our Network Administrators.

Hoover:

Our systems are CIPA-compliant. We conduct penetration tests quarterly to test effectiveness.

Birmingham:

Currently approximately 3,000 employees and 24,000 students share 1000 Mbps of managed Internet access from Alabama Super Computer of which 500 Mbps is funded by the State Department of Education. Internet content is filtered through iBoss via Alabama Super Computer. We have the ability to customize the filtering and block web content that the district deems inappropriate in addition to Alabama Super Computer filtering that meets the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).

The district also uses several security measures to protect data and resources including firewalls, antivirus software, and spam filtering. The firewall that is in place is a Fortinet 3600. We have two that are in high availability mode. If one fails, the other one will take over so that the district is never without protection. The antivirus software and spam filtering are provided by Symantec Endpoint Protection.

Shelby County:

We have a state of the art Palo Alto firewall along with a popular web and content filter also used by the state. We also use other measures for scanning content and keywords. The specific device is not for public knowledge due to safety concerns.

Jefferson County:

We use a CIPA compliant internet filter and an industry standard firewall.

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