Newton North High considers lifting ban on Facebook
This story is from BostonGlobe.com, the only place for complete digital access to the Globe.
Students at Newton North High may soon be able to see not only their friends when they get to school, but also their friend requests.
School officials are considering whether to free up access to the popular social networking site Facebook, which is blocked on student computers.
“The students argue that there are a lot of educational uses for Facebook,” said Jennifer Price, principal at Newton North. “A lot of times when they’re assigned a group project, they communicate over Facebook.”
But, Price said, she also understands concerns about the site being a distraction from learning.
Well over a decade after the Internet began to be used widely in schools, the conversation about which sites are acceptable in a K-12 educational setting continues among area officials. Schools routinely block adult content, but beyond that administrators have wide leeway in deciding what sites students can access.
Some sites that were once seen largely as distractions — such as Facebook and the video-sharing site YouTube — have been embraced by some districts for their educational value. The American Association of School Librarians has even set aside next Wednesday — during its Banned Books Week — as Banned Websites Awareness Day, putting Internet content in the company of classic literature like “Brave New World” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Last spring, a student and faculty group at Newton North voted in favor of a recommendation to unblock Facebook.
As principal, Price can accept or veto the recommendation after the group reconvenes next month, and she hasn’t said what she’ll decide. But she did say she found one argument — that students with a smartphone can already access the site through their cellular service — particularly compelling.
“So the kids who can afford smartphones can get it, but the ones who can’t afford them can’t,” Price said. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
In Marlborough, Facebook is blocked, as are some games sites, said Maureen Greulich, an instructional leadership director for the school system. YouTube currently is also blocked, although Greulich said access will be opened up once a bandwidth issue is solved.
“We have a belief that it can be used for good and is not necessarily just used for evil,” Greulich said. “Teachers use YouTube all the time.”
Greulich said Marlborough bans Facebook because there are other, less distracting ways for students to collaborate online.
“Facebook’s not the only game in town,” Gruelich said. “And Facebook, as we know, has many traps of slipping into cyber-bullying.”
In Holliston, Facebook is the only website other than adult content that is blocked, said Superintendent Brad Jackson.
Holliston instituted a bring-your-own-device policy last year, opening up the school’s wireless Internet system to student laptops and tablets. At that time, the district briefly unblocked Facebook, but concerns from parents and teachers led officials to block it again.
“We agreed that it would be more distracting than it would serve an educational purpose,” Jackson said.
He rejected the comparison of Facebook to classic books that have been banned, such as “The Catcher in the Rye.”
“We’re not restricting access as much as we’re trying to reduce distractions in the classroom,” Jackson said. “When technology becomes more ubiquitous, it does have the ability to become distracting. We have to find the right balance, where the teacher doesn’t have to compete with a student checking their Facebook page to see if their girlfriend responded to a post.”
Jackson compared the decision to block Facebook to teachers in his day not allowing students to pass notes in class. “They weren’t restricting my free speech,” he said.
Facebook is also blocked at Newton South High School, although principal Joel Stembridge said plenty of students use their smartphones to check the site, often for legitimate reasons, such as keeping in touch with school clubs.
“They’re accessing Facebook now on their own devices,” Stembridge said. “To think that Facebook isn’t being accessed in either North or South right now is sort of a silly notion.”
Stembridge said officials at Newton South hadn’t discussed in depth whether to open up access to Facebook, but said he’ll follow the lead of the city’s other public high school if it unblocks the site.
“We’re going to be supportive of whichever direction North goes,” he said.
Calvin Hennick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.