Archive for Sunday, May 4, 2008

Virginia public schools to teach classes on Internet safety

May 4, 2008

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— Alan Portillo didn't think much, if at all, about his online vulnerability. Then the 15-year-old heard technology teacher Wendy Maitland list three pieces of information an online predator would need to find him.

Birth date, she said. Alan's age was on his e-mail.

Gender. His full name was also on his e-mail and topped his MySpace page.

ZIP code. A photo on the page showed an area near his neighborhood, with "Arlington" emblazoned across one building.

"I thought it was nothing. But when I saw the examples, I started thinking, it's a big deal," the high school freshman said. After the February lesson, he said, he deleted the photo and his last name from the page.

Virginia public schools will soon launch Internet safety lessons across all grade levels, responding to a state mandate that is the first of its kind in the nation. Even though today's students have known no life without the Internet, only a couple of states have laws that recommend schools teach online safety.

Virginia school systems have been rewriting policies, running pilot programs and putting final touches on lesson plans to be offered from kindergarten through 12th grade starting in September.

"One of the things we realized is there is no one-size-fits-all approach," said Tammy McGraw, the Virginia Department of Education's director of educational technology. "Ultimately what we're trying to do is ensure we have safe and responsible Internet users."

The state's goal is to integrate safety skills into the curriculum, not simply teach them in one lesson. An English lesson on truth and fiction, for example, could require a paper on what information online should be trusted.

"It's not something that we think can really be addressed by bringing children together in an assembly," McGraw said. "We think they have to think about it all the time."

One recent afternoon, two 15-year-old girls at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., discussed what they learned in a pilot Internet safety class: Misunderstood text messages can lead to hurt feelings; parents, too, can dole out too many details online about their children; and risks abound in using social networking sites.

Lily Pinner, a freshman, sets her MySpace page on private and lists her age as 99. But she said a friend's 4-year-old sister recently ventured onto the site, writing friendly messages with her name and age and noting that she lives "in a big house."

"I said, 'You don't want to tell people that.' She said, 'Why?' " Lily said, adding that it's hard because she doesn't want to scare the girl but wants to keep her safe. "I said, 'Because some people aren't nice.' "

"They still believe everyone is good and the bad guy always loses," added freshman Labiba Ahmed.

One in seven children ages 10 to 17 has been sexually solicited while online, according to the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children. Thirty-four percent of those youths also acknowledged communicating online with individuals they did not know, and more are posting personal information and photos on the Internet, according to the organization.

"The reality is, kids have this sense of immortality and can do some remarkably dangerous things, putting themselves at risk," said Ernie Allen, National Center for Exploited and Missing Children's chief executive.

Del. William H. Fralin Jr., R-Roanoke, said he introduced the Virginia legislation, which passed in 2006, when his oldest child was 10 and had just started using the Internet. He said his wife raised the question of safety.

"She said, 'How do we know who he's talking to and what's going on?' and I said, 'I don't know,' " Fralin said.

The state initiative calls for including parents. One chapter in a state resource book covers "What Parents, Grandparents, and Caregivers Need to Know."

Comments

Bob-RJ Burkhart 7 years, 4 months ago

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