Oroville teen fights school’s LGBT-content filter

Melina Zancanella started a Gay-Straight Alliance chapter at Oroville High

Melina Zancanella was shocked when she learned that her school’s web-filtering software blocked LGBT sites.

Melina Zancanella was shocked when she learned that her school’s web-filtering software blocked LGBT sites.

Photo By Simone Baker

To learn more about the “Don’t Filter Me” Initiative, visit www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/dont-filter-me.

Melina Zancanella, a 16-year-old junior at Oroville High School, started a local chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance after reading about the abnormally high rates of suicide among gay and lesbian teens.

“I found that incredibly depressing,” she said. “And I didn’t want anyone to kill themselves here. I wanted to create a safe place for everybody.”

However, during her research into forming a GSA group she found the organization’s website had been blocked on her public school’s computers.

“I found that very frustrating. I felt it was unfair because some anti-gay websites were not being blocked,” said Zancanella, who ended up turning to the American Civil Liberties Union for help after getting no response to a complaint letter she sent on March 25 to the Butte County Office of Education.

To her surprise, she learned that public schools all over the country had been caught blocking LGBT Internet content—including Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District in Texas, Little Rock School District in Arkansas, Northfield School District in Minnesota, and Downingtown School District in Pennsylvania.

“A lot of people are being denied the equal access they need, especially in schools, where you’d assume that that’s the best place to get [information] from,” Zancanella said.

Zancanella called the ACLU after her mother came across the organization’s “Don’t Filter Me” initiative on the Internet. The initiative encourages students who think their school might be filtering LGBT websites to contact the organization.

Joshua Block, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national LGBT Rights Campaign, said he’s received complaints concerning 76 schools nationwide. He said most schools have been quick to remove the block after being contacted. And in many cases, he said, he thinks the filters may have been activated by mistake.

“What’s been great about the response that we’ve got is that it turns out that almost all the schools we’ve dealt with have no desire to discriminate against LGBT content,” he said. “They didn’t realize these filters were designed to filter content that is not pornographic. Once they find out, they realize not only does it not serve the student rights, but it also does serve their own educational interests.”

In response to the ACLU letter sent on May 18, the Oroville Union High School District (OUHSD) swiftly removed the block restricting access to websites for groups that include the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, Campus Pride, Day of Silence and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Public schools like Oroville High sometimes restrict LGBT websites using web-filtering software designed to block pornographic material. The software organizes websites into categories, but it’s up to the discretion of school officials whether to filter a particular category of website.

Zancanella had not contacted OUHSD prior to the district’s receiving the letter from the ACLU. Oran Roberts, the district’s superintendent, declined to comment on questions about why the filter was originally activated.

Currently, Oroville Union is the only school district in California to have received a formal demand letter from the ACLU to unblock LGBT content. However, the ACLU is looking into complaints at five other schools in the state.

Zancanella, who identifies as bisexual, is currently the president of the GSA chapter at Oroville High. She said 15 to 20 members show up to meetings on a regular basis. She had first proposed the GSA chapter last September, but high school officials did not approve it until January.

In April, the California Teachers Association presented her with its annual Youth Activist Award for her persistence in establishing the GSA chapter.

According to a recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics, homosexual teens are five times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers; however, gay, lesbian and bisexual students who attend schools with anti-discrimination policies and specifically with chapters of the Gay-Straight Alliance are less likely to take their own lives.

Zancanella noted that growing up in Oroville is a challenge for gay teens.

“It’s a small town and naturally the older population might not feel so comfortable toward it,” she said. “But the younger generation is sort of seeing that there’s more [than] this small town, and there’s a lot beyond just what you’re used to. I think definitely the younger generation is more comfortable with equal treatment of LGBT youth.”