Katy ISD blocks LGBTQ + resources and student suicide prevention websites

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Katy ISD is blocking several websites of organizations serving LGBTQ + children, including a suicide prevention hotline, through the District Student Internet, according to an analysis from the Houston Chronicle.

A group of students and activists say limiting access to these sites makes it harder for children in need to access life-saving resources, such as the Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBTQ + youth and a non-profit advocacy organization. They also argue that censoring material aimed at helping children sends a damaging message that their identities are not validated and their lives are not valued.

“The Trevor Project is a website to support young people in crisis regarding their sexuality or gender identity,” said Cameron Samuels, an elder at Seven Lakes High School. “It must be accessible to all students. There should be no reason for a suicide prevention hotline to be banned.

Other sites apparently blocked by the district include the Montrose Center, a Houston-based nonprofit with youth support and services groups, the Human Rights Campaign and Advocate, a news source focused on the LGBTQ + community. .

While it is possible for some students to access websites by other means on personal devices outside of the school Internet, others do not have this capability.

“This assumes that all children have access to the Internet at home and to personal cell phones and are safe enough to do so,” said Laura Kanter, youth services manager at the Montrose Center. “Parents who find out their child is viewing this information could result in the child being subjected to conversion therapy, violence or being kicked out of the home. “

Katy ISD would not confirm that websites are restricted to student access after multiple inquiries.

The Houston Chronicle observed a student attempting to access the sites of Seven Lakes High School. While trying to load the Trevor Project website, a message popped up saying there was no internet access. After reloading the webpage, another post from katyisd.org indicated that the site was listed in a blocked category titled “Human Sexuality.” The same has happened for the Montrose Center, Outsmart Magazine, HRC, and the Advocate websites.

Laura Davis, spokesperson for Katy ISD, said its third-party internet filtering software is based on predetermined categories that comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

“These categories are determined by external school platforms that help districts maintain CIPA compliance,” she said in an email. “The district does not review all domains on the Internet because there are millions of them. Rather, it depends on outside school-based platforms to categorize content and filter content that aligns with CIPA compliance. “

Virtually all school districts block online content to some extent, including censorship of pornography, as required by CIPA.

Houston ISD, for example, does not allow students to visit websites that promote acts of violence, drug use, use of illegal weapons, or discrimination. The district is also blocking sites that offer online gambling, instructions for committing crimes like bombing, and those that facilitate participation in hate groups.

In HISD, users can submit requests to the IT help desk to determine if a site needs to be unblocked. The service desk then determines if there is a good reason to unblock the site and assesses the potential risk in doing so.

CIPA does not force schools to censor texts online. It also does not allow districts to block access to websites expressing ideas or views officials find controversial.

“What CIPA requires is the installation of technological safeguards that block access to images considered legally obscene to minors,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the ‘American Library Association. “What is envisioned are sexually explicit photographs of sexual acts as defined by law, not a blanket blocking of sites that may be controversial or that some people may not approve of. This may well constitute a violation of the First Amendment rights of students. “

In 2012, a federal judge ordered a Missouri school district to stop screening websites related to gay and transgender issues after being sued by the Americans Civil Liberties Union. The judge ruled that the district discriminated against students who wanted to access these sites and was ordered to pay a settlement.

“It is misleading to say that CIPA requires this kind of censorship,” Caldwell-Stone said. “The court did not accept this as an excuse. Claiming that a screening company makes these decisions is even worse because private entities have no right to decide what is appropriate and what is not.

Of the six other Houston-area districts that responded to a Chronicle survey, including ISDs Barbers Hill, Fort Bend, Aldine and Friendswood, none have blocked Project Trevor’s website to high school students. Officials in those districts said the website did not violate their internet usage policies.

Only one other district, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said it was blocking the Montrose Center website to high school students. Two school systems – Cy-Fair ISD and Lamar CISD – restrict access to the Lawyer website.

“The district uses an internet filtering solution that protects K-12 students on all devices, web browsers and platforms with unmatched security, flexibility and control,” said Leslie Francis, Assistant Superintendent for communication at Cy-Fair ISD. “The filtering solution is focused on education and the suggested defaults are installed. “

Kanter said blaming the built-in filters for lack of access is “ridiculous.”

“Obviously, they don’t care enough about these young people to make sure they have these resources,” she said.

Caldwell-Stone said that since the 2012 federal decision, it has become good practice for public institutions to actively ensure that students can access these documents.

“Most respectable school districts and library boards are watching carefully what websites they screen – or they should be,” she said.

Districts that restrict access to potentially life-saving resources are doing all students a disservice, Kanter said.

“It’s very clear that what LGBT youth need is support, care and places that recognize and celebrate them for who they are,” she said. “It is the law that all students deserve a safe and supportive environment and equal access to education. If these students do not have these resources, it limits their access to education.

Students at Seven Lakes High School who are fighting for Katy ISD to unblock websites have formed an online petition that had garnered around 620 signatures on Tuesday. The group also contacted district board members and district administrators directly, as well as spoke at a public school board meeting.

Blocking resources for students in the LGBTQ + community sends a clear message that they are not supported by school officials, said Samuels, who identifies as non-binary.

“(The district) banning it indicates it’s not OK for them,” Samuels said. “The worst possible situation would be for a student to be in a suicidal crisis and trying to use resources that can help him and not be able to.”

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Alejandro Serrano contributed to this report.

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