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Complaint alleges children discovered pornography while browsing on school-issued laptops

Montgomery County, Md., faces complaints from two families who allege their children were exposed to pornography through student accounts on school-issued Chromebook laptops. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Two families in suburban Maryland allege their children were extensively exposed to pornography as they used their school-issued laptops amid the pandemic, according to a letter of complaint sent to Montgomery County school officials.

Calling on the state’s largest school system to warn other parents and fix weaknesses in its system, the letter describes the experiences of a third-grader and a sixth-grader who were allegedly able to access graphic material online with their Chromebook computers.

The families are unacquainted and live in different areas of the sprawling county.

The younger child, 9 years old, accessed hundreds of pornographic sites through Twitter, which his parents discovered Nov. 11 in the Web browser history of his school account, according to the five-page letter of complaint filed on the families’ behalf by attorney Timothy F. Maloney.

“Many of these sites were related to popular video games, such as Fortnite, and linked their son to pornographic cartoons and pornographic video,” the complaint said.

The family was devastated, the boy’s father said in an interview. He described the material as graphic depictions of sex acts, accessed over a period of a month and a half. “He’s a little boy, and he saw things that no one should see, especially a child,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect his son’s privacy.

“One of the most painful parts about it is that he was sitting a few feet away from us,” he added. “We were checking on him — not once a day, not twice a day but a dozen times a day.”

The older student, age 11, used the search engine Ecosia to get to sites with pornographic images, according to the letter. His parents said that he accessed the materials for more than six weeks and that at least one website asked for his name and other personal details. They discovered the problem last week when they examined his browser history.

“Both families ask the Board to take immediate action to remedy the harm done to their children and protect their children and other Montgomery County students using these [school system] accounts and Chromebooks from further harm,” the letter of complaint said.

It said that if the board does not act, the families will seek emergency relief from the courts. “They should not have to do this,” the complaint said.

Montgomery schools officials declined to comment on the specifics of the letter — which they are still looking into — but said they go to great lengths to protect students. The system of more than 160,000 students has long complied with safeguards required under federal law and works to keep students as safe as possible, they said.

“We filter and block all of our devices whether in school or out of school,” said Peter Cevenini, associate superintendent for technology and innovation, who said social media sites are blocked to all students below ninth grade.

But Cevenini said the system is not foolproof. “There’s no such thing as perfect, but we do provide a very strong layer of support and services to make sure our students are secure and safe,” he said.

Inappropriate sites can’t be accessed “unconsciously or by error,” he said. “However, there are always ways in any type of computer system to bypass filters and securities that are put in place and get to things if you choose to.”

About 140,000 students in Montgomery County are using school-issued devices. Another 20,000 or so are using technology provided by their families.

Cevenini said he tells families who inquire that they could seek additional parental controls through their Internet service provider if they desire.

Montgomery schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala added that if pornography were a widespread problem, the system would have heard about it, given that school lessons went online starting in March.

“This is something we have been doing now for nine months — keeping students safe, blocking these websites,” she said. “While no system is perfect . . . there is a whole team of folks working to ensure that the processes we have in place work.”

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Technology staff members have been responsive to parents with concerns, school officials said. The system also provides lessons about digital citizenship and strives to partner with parents as they monitor students, they said.

Not everyone was as sure that the letter of complaint does not point to broader problems.

Lisa Cline, the mother of a middle school student and chair of the safe-technology committee of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, praised the families involved in the complaint for coming forward and “making this a big deal.”

She wondered how many other families don’t know or may not come forward. In the past, she said, she has heard reports of kids accessing inappropriate content but “nothing at quite that level.”

“I’m surprised that something that overt could get through the filter,” she said, adding that the problem probably extends beyond Montgomery County.

“It raises a red flag to all of us,” she said. “I think we should look at the browser history of our kids and check in with them on a daily basis. Ask them how it went at school . . . give them the chance to share any surprises.”

The letter alleges that school officials knew of the risks, failed to warn parents and “denied there is any problem” when contacted. “Parents need the ability to protect their children who use the Board’s laptops,” it said.

The third-grader’s family was at first told by IT staff that little could be done, then later told Twitter is blocked for students the boy’s age, according to the complaint, which included a screenshot of some sites the child accessed. At some point, the student’s Twitter access was blocked.

The sixth-grader’s family said at first an IT employee appeared concerned but then Cevenini contacted them, leading to a more strained back-and-forth about whether the sites were blocked and how the situation could be safer, it said.

The next day, the 11-year-old’s school-issued computer was blocked for any online activity, the complaint said.

Both students have struggled emotionally, their families said.

The 11-year-old has been withdrawn and short-tempered — filled with guilt and shame, crying every day and sleepless, his mother said in an interview. He had not had sex education at school yet, she said. He starts therapy next week,

“I just felt like his innocence has been stolen,” said his mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her son’s privacy. “The whole time, I thought: ‘It’s a school computer. What harm could it be?’ ”

The family said other 11-year-olds are sharing information about the websites.

The parents of the 9-year-old said their son had shown a “profound change” in behavior in recent weeks — anxious, withdrawn and frequently angry. He does not want to participate in virtual lessons or connect with friends, they said.

“We wanted other parents to know about the risk,” said the boy’s father. He said the family also wanted the school system to address the problem and not deny it.

“It’s all very distressing,” the father said. “This happened because he was using the school-issued Chromebook, which we thought was safe. It felt like such a betrayal.”

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