Behind the Screens: Lawrence District’s Internet Restrictions

Updated: Aug 18

Tamara Tracz ('25)

If you look to the top, left corner of your Chromebook screen, you will spot a mini blue dot. Ever wonder what it is? Or, if you are a little bit more curious, do you ever wonder how Lawrence District has been managing student activity on the computer? Well, I interviewed Steven Prentiss, the IT supervisor of Lawrence to get the inside scoop. Mr. Prentiss is head of the physical infrastructure part of the IT department: his job is to set up the controls of school devices as they’ve been decided by the administration. This is everything you’ll want to know about your school computer!

Cartoon by Piyush Nawade ('24)

Students are assigned take-home laptops in sixth grade, but laptops are provided to them in the classroom as early as kindergarten. Because the chromebooks are school property, the school district uses Google Workspace for Education, which gives students access to Google Classroom, Google Docs, etc. However, Lawrence also uses a product called GoGuardian, which works in conjunction with Google. It’s a tool that provides some filtering for the chromebooks and allows custom settings, differentiated by grade level. Each grade is in their own organizational unit, so they can apply filters at a building level, or even as granular as a grade level. Basically, GoGuardian monitors what kids search for, what sites they visit, and it’ll recognize inappropriate pictures, which notifies people like Mr. Prentiss, “but more importantly…the administrators in the building”. According to Mr. Prentiss, GoGuardian blocks sites that promote academic dishonesty, anything of pornographic nature, certain URLs that are known to be malicious sites, and some of the social media stuff. The school has been using GoGuardian since the beginning of Covid.

YouTube is another thing altogether. Two years ago, YouTube was removed from the Google Apps for Education platform, which removed it from Google Workspace for Education. So, it became its own separate entity and that is the reason we actually have a recommended page on YouTube with a school account. Most of the filters on YouTube are done by YouTube itself. Lawrence school district has “unrestricted YouTube access” turned on, but it isn’t 100% because it assumes that all Lawrence students are under the age of 18. Any video YouTube marks “inappropriate” is blocked for students. The IT department also has the ability to blacklist or whitelist any video. And that is the most unrestricted YouTube access the school can give. However, there is more filtering on top of that, and this is where GoGuardian comes in. If GoGuardian catches a student viewing an inappropriate image or video, administrators can click onto it and see what search words they used. Once the administrators zero in on a specific keyword, they’ll ask the tech department to manually block it. Overall, GoGuardian filters YouTube based on certain keywords “that people shouldn’t be searching”. One of the words happens to be “girl”, and when I asked Mr. Prentiss about it, he said that they “also block ‘boys’”! In all seriousness, he told me that “girl” was the number one keyword. There is also a new feature in GoGuardian, the blue dot in the corner of the screen, to which Mr. Prentiss said “was to be a little more transparent” about the school computer policy.

Cartoon by Ben Weeks ('24)

I am sure some of you were already familiar with these restrictions before because you clicked onto a website or video that was blocked, even when it was considered educational or virtually harmless. Mr. Prentiss admits that “it’s not a perfect science” and that he refers to his job as “whackamole” because it is “constantly changing” and kind of “an open book”. If a student feels like there is a video or site that shouldn’t be blocked, they should bring it up to a teacher and the teacher can get it back to the IT department. It is typically turned around on the same day. The last question I had for Mr. Prentiss was regarding whether the school can see a student’s full chromebook history at any given moment. Although he did say it is very involved, it is possible in a worst case scenario. Jokingly, Mr. Prentiss added, “We don't have a room of people who are just watching what people are doing…this isn’t the CIA here. We’re just trying to keep kids safe”.

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