San Diego Unified cut off classroom access to Google tools such as Gmail two weeks ago after the company changed the way some of its searches work — a move to protect privacy that made pornography more accessible.

That change allows students to get around filters that block inappropriate images. School technology chief Darryl LaGace said in some cases, students could search for pornography and view thumbnail images from videos, though they couldn’t actually visit the sites.

Because the school district has to monitor and block websites that could be harmful to minors under its own policies and federal law, it blocked Google tools such as Gmail or Google Docs, which allows users to edit documents and share them online. Those tools are linked to the new, revised search.

Google itself is still unchanged and available for searches, but teachers say any Google service requiring a log in, including calendars or building a website, is gone. If San Diego Unified hadn’t done so, LaGace said it could have been at risk of losing federal money for technology. But he isn’t happy about the block, calling it “a crime.”

Cutting off Google sites has wreaked havoc on schools that are increasingly going digital.

Jennifer Roberts at Point Loma High School teaches her English class with a laptop for each student. Her students often use Google Docs to write papers and edit each others’ work. They had just started up their own blogs through a Google service when the school district shut it down.

“I agree with keeping kids safe. I agree with filtering things,” Roberts said. “But there has to be a better way to solve this.”

Blocking Gmail is also a serious pain for teachers who have replaced their school district e-mail, which has limited storage space. Kids are miffed because they often use Gmail to send papers to school to be printed. Even school board President Richard Barrera got an earful from his teenage son about it.

Google says it is working on a fix. The company has recommended setting a safe search feature in each browser on each computer, but LaGace said that would be extremely difficult to do on thousands of school computers and students could easily get around it anyway.

“Google needs to listen to schools. This is a critical situation,” LaGace said. “But apparently public education isn’t as important as the customers they serve.”

Is this happening in other school districts too? Have they found good ways around it? Shoot me an e-mail at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org. If you’re technologically savvy, you might also want to check out other articles about this topic on technology websites such as Softpedia.com, ZDNet and ReadWriteWeb.

— EMILY ALPERT

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