Montana public schools block LGBTQ advocacy websites to ‘protect students and staff’

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Montana public schools are now blocking access to pro-LGBTQ websites. The sites were blocked by schools in Billings, Montana beginning January 14, and it even included such crucial sites as Human Rights Watch and GLAAD. Both are dedicated to helping teens understand and support differing sexual orientations, and as such, they also protect those who might suffer discrimination and violence.

In a story for CounterPunch, writer Joshua Frank notes that Brandon Newpher, the Chief Information/Executive Director of Technology for Billings Public Schools informed his staff that “stricter web/internet filtering will be implemented as a way to improve network security and help protect students and staff.”

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CounterPunch obtained a list of blocked keywords and subjects, but the total number of sites affected by this isn’t known. However, students said they are still uncovering sites that have been affected.

The terms “gay,” “homosexuality,” and “LGBT/Q” weren’t included in the list of blocked keywords. The list did show that the terms “adult content,” and “dating sites,” were blocked for students and staff, Raw Story reports.

And as CounterPunch notes, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), declares that “blocking all LGBT content violates students’ First Amendment rights to free speech.”

“They also violate the Equal Access Act, which requires that equal access to school resources for all extracurricular clubs, including gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups,” the ACLU notes.

But the Billings public schools system says the sites are being blocked to “comply with filtering requirements as described by the Children’s Internet Protection Act.”

But organizations like Human Rights Watch and GLAAD serve important purposes, especially because they offer protection from bullying. When schools block these websites they aren’t protecting students.

And this comes at a time when there’s a particularly disturbing trend. The homicide rate for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. nearly doubled in 2017, MarketWatch reports. At least 52 LGBTQ individuals were murdered, a jump of 86 percent according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. But the especially tragic fact here is that the number is very likely higher because the report only looked at single-shooting events. Mass shootings like the horrific Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016 weren’t counted. And LGBTQ advocates say transgendered and lesbian victims were also likely under-represented due to the way law enforcement officials often report them.

Last March, New Jersey’s Vineland High School lifted its ban on gay advocacy sites thanks to pressure from the ACLU. The organization has put pressure on the Prince Williams Schools in Washington, D.C. to lift their ban on these sites. Even so, there are still numerous school districts and schools nationwide that continue to block access via school computers and WiFi.

And that spurred the ACLU to sponsor “Don’t Filter Me,” a country-wide campaign in 2011 in the hopes of identifying schools that block access to LGBTQ resources:

“The use of Internet filtering tools to censor websites that advocate for the fair treatment of LGBT people is wrong and illegal,” Jay Kaplan, the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project staff attorney told CounterPunch. “Many of these websites provide much-needed support and resources for LGBT youth during a critical time of their lives. By blocking LGBT websites, schools are sending a terrible message to students that LGBT voices are to be ignored and silenced.”

Teenagers are continually pressured by their peers, and most especially on social media. It’s a time when they are discovering who they are and what they want out of life. And they find much of this out at school. Excluding access to gay-advocacy sites may very well put these kids in dangerous situations, and it does nothing to help those who are being bullied or struggling with personal issues.

Schools are supposed to support people of every race, sexual orientation, gender identity, creed, and color. Not just the ones they favor.

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