Could your kids find pornographic articles on school computers?

Updated: Jun. 28, 2017 at 10:23 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - A company with a division in Birmingham is under fire from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. The center says your children could see pornographic articles on school computers that are supposed to be guarded by tech products made by EBSCO.

When a Colorado middle schooler came home saying she had found pornographic articles during a database search on her school library's computers---her parents contacted the National Center On Sexual Exploitation.

"I didn't believe this could be such a big problem but as we started looking around the united states looking at schools, we found the same kind of content in great abundance, but also in the elementary schools," says Dawn Hawkins, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation's Executive Director.

The databases are part of set of products offered by EBSCO Information Services, a company with a division based in Birmingham. Their products are used in thousands of schools around the country. 4 of the biggest school systems in the Birmingham area all use the Alabama Virtual Library, which includes several EBSCO databases.

EBSCO told us it looked at the Alabama Virtual Library and discovered it was allowing users with elementary or middle school profiles to access 2 databases that EBSCO doesn't recommend for students that age.

EBSCO says it's reaching out to the Library to try and correct this because of our investigation.

The databases are meant to give students access to safe and reliable information through the school's library computers.

"The sexually explicit material is popping up with innocent searches like 7th grade respiration or 7th grade biology, but then a lot of material is popping up with pornographic searches that really should be just blocked out for elementary and middle school users," Hawkins says.

EBSCO and the Center have been going back and forth for months to try and fix the problems, and the Center says it got a letter from EBSCO Friday saying the problems were resolved. But a team of Center researchers says it found 50 articles with what it calls "inappropriate material" within 15 minutes while searching some EBSCO databases called Primary Search and Middle Search Plus on Monday.

One article the Center shared with us that they say they found Monday is titled "Start Spreading the Nudes,"  and the center says they found an article on 21 sex tips.

"It was encouraging the reader to watch pornography and to film their sex acts," Hawkins says. "And we found dozens of other articles sharing these kinds of tips and this was available to the 12-14 year old in middle school."

The Center says they believe EBSCO's algorithm isn't catching all of the search terms or explicit results they're supposed to, but EBSCO says this is partly a first amendment issue about what is an isn't appropriate to include in search results.

EBSCO released this statement to WBRC Wednesday:

In February 2017, NCOSE called to our attention several magazine articles that the organization deemed inappropriate for K-12 students. We worked to understand their concerns and took additional steps to enhance and refine our existing content selection process. We have removed publications and questionable content from databases based on conversations with NCOSE as well as a stricter definition of age-appropriateness.

We recently updated NCOSE on our efforts and we understand from WBRC that NCOSE has continuing concerns based on searches they have conducted. We have reached out to the organization for more information but we have been unable to replicate the search results mentioned by reporters or shown by NCOSE. We believe NCOSE may be searching databases that are not intended for a K-12 audience which may explain some of their results but we are confident that our school resources do not contain the searches described in their most recent video.

We will continue to reach out to NCOSE to better understand their concerns and determine which databases they are searching and understand what they are questioning.

EBSCO is committed to the safety and security of students and we look forward to resolving these issues. We will continue to work with organizations like NCOSE to assess concerns and ensure that the content in our school databases are age-appropriate.

"I will admit EBSCO has made significant improvements to the system and we applaud them for that," Hawkins says. "But we found more than 50 articles today in 50 minutes promoting extremely explicit material, so there's far to go. We have to educate the schools and parents so they recognize this is a real threat to their kids and that's the part that's been missing in this fight."

Here's a link to EBSCO's recommendations for setting up these databases for students:

And here's a longer explanation from EBSCO of their response to the Center's concerns:

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