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EBSCO accused of including smut in school databases

EBSCO Information Services, generally doesn’t make the news. Instead the Ipswich company collects news stories and other published information in databases that it sells to schools, libraries and businesses.

But now EBSCO is under fire from parents and conservative activists who say its databases for schools contain hard-core pornography. Schools in Colorado have stopped using EBSCO, while a parents group there sued the company earlier this month.

“They have all sorts of pornographic content and they’ve had all sorts of fair warning,” said Matthew Heffron, an attorney for the Thomas More Society, a conservative public interest law firm that represents the Colorado parents. “They’ve bought themselves this lawsuit.”

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EBSCO denied its databases for children contain pornography.

“We are appalled by the tenor of allegations related to our intent and the inaccuracies of statements clearly made in absence of factual information,” spokeswoman Kathleen McEvoy said in a statement.

EBSCO and its competitors have huge collections of published content, from popular magazines to obscure scientific journals. Sometimes, though, inappropriate material slips through, or the archived documents have links that could lead young readers to pornographic content.

The companies typically use software filters to block inappropriate content or entire publications from appearing in school databases, while still allowing access to adults. Schools can also apply their own filters, but sometimes those don’t work if students access databases from home.

In fact, EBSCO had made recent changes to its data collection that impressed one longtime critic. The Washington-based National Center on Sexual Exploitation includes EBSCO on its “dirty dozen” list of businesses, finding in the past that searches for such innocent-seeming terms as “7th grade biology” would lead to inappropriate content.

But in a test conducted just this week, executive director Dawn Hawkins said nearly all explicit materials have disappeared from the EBSCO database.

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“The elementary school database was really the worst one 18 months ago, and now our researchers are finding nothing in the elementary and middle school database,” said Hawkins. “We did find some material in the high school database, but it really is a lot more cleaned up.”

Hawkins believes EBSCO was goaded by legal threats and the loss of some significant customers.

In September, the Cherry Creek School District of Aurora, Colo., dropped EBSCO, saying the company didn’t aggressively remove questionable materials. Spokeswoman Abbe Smith said the district worked with EBSCO for about 18 months, but “was not satisfied with their response.”

Cherry Creek now uses databases from Gale, which is owned by Boston-based Cengage. Lemma Shomali, director of products for primary and secondary schools, said Gale is careful to make sure there’s nothing sexually explicit in its school databases.

“We do not source publications and magazines that are not appropriate for K through 12 in the first place,” Shomali said.

EBSCO has also come under fire in Utah. The state Education and Telehealth Network had blocked use of the company’s databases for schools, but rescinded that ban on Friday after EBSCO removed inappropriate content.

“We’ve been working with them on a daily basis to put more stringent filters in place,” said Rich Finlinson, a spokesman for the Utah network.

In a document on its website, EBSCO said it provides tools for schools to block specific publications that might be problematic. The company said it is also developing more powerful tools, including blocking articles on specific controversial topics, or even specific articles in a magazine while allowing other content from the same issue.

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But Colorado parent Drew Paterson, who said he found hard-core pornography when using his daughter’s EBSCO account, said school administrators shouldn’t be expected to hunt through an endless torrent of articles, blocking them on a case-by-case basis.

“This is something that EBSCO, that advertises this material as age-appropriate, should be doing at the source,” Paterson said.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com.