Safety in Numbers

Virginia public schools will be required to teach students about Internet safety under a new state law.

by / May 2, 2006

Without adequate Internet safety awareness, children unknowingly become vulnerable to online dangers.

Effective July 1, 2006, a new law in Virginia will require state educators to "include a component on Internet safety for students that is integrated in a division's instructional program." The bill -- sponsored by Delegate William H. Fralin, Jr. -- was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Timothy Kaine in March 2006.

Dangerous Territory
As students increasingly rely on the Internet for research and education, instructors and parents become more aware of the risks involved.

For instance, when children use online networking Web sites to socialize, they are often unaware that they are disclosing vital information -- age, gender, location, etc. -- used by sexual predators and online criminals when searching for victims. Their information becomes fair game in the dark underworld of online criminal activity, and innocent fun becomes serious danger.

According to the National Center for Missing Children's (NCMEC) Online Victimization Report, one in every five children between the ages of 10 and 17 are sexually solicited online, and only 25 percent of those children tell a parent or guardian. In addition, one in four children are exposed to unwanted pornographic images.

"As technology evolves, so does the creativity of the online predator," said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the NCMEC, at a hearing in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. "It is essential to give parents, guardians and children the tools to help protect their families from this possible risk."

The law in Virginia is designed to help schools spark awareness of Internet safety in students statewide.

Integrated Safety Instruction
As technology usage grows in education, many educational institutions are providing some type of Internet safety education.

T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria distributes laptops to students in grades 9 through 12 and has already taken measures to promote responsible computer usage; however, according to Principal John Porter, the new Internet safety law will help unify Internet safety instruction statewide.

"The law ensures that each student in the public schools in Virginia will have had some sort of similar instruction relative to the dangers and the concerns of using the Internet," he said.

The bill's language doesn't set forth specific requirements for teaching online safety, though after the law goes into effect, the superintendent of public instruction has 45 days to institute guidelines for Internet safety instruction for individual school districts. The superintendent and educators involved in creating the curriculum are encouraged to utilize sources from law enforcement and industry experts to provide the best instruction possible.

Another important benefit of the law is repetition, Porter said. Students don't always focus on what adults tell them, but providing ongoing, consistent instruction yearly from class to class will hopefully help to reinforce the importance of Internet safety, he added.

Despite the law's focus on education, parental involvement is a necessary component, Porter said.

"We can't monitor what happens at home and parents need to take that responsibility," he said. "We all must work together to make sure that the message gets across and appropriate monitoring takes place at both school and at home."
The problem is that many parents don't recognize the dangers or take the steps necessary to keep their children safe online.
According to the Parent's Internet Monitoring Study commissioned by Cox Communications and the NCMEC in 2005, 42 percent of parents surveyed do not review their children's online activities in chat rooms or through instant messaging; 51 percent do not have or do not know if they have software that can monitor what Web sites their children visit or with whom they communicate; 30 percent of parents said their teenagers use computers in private areas of the house, where their activities are less likely to be monitored.
"I think the idea is that we need to expand the overall understanding of what is appropriate Internet usage for kids -- not only what's appropriate, but where the danger lies out there," Porter said.

Educating students is the first step to educating everyone involved.

Unfortunately the tendency is for individuals to deny the risks to themselves, Porter said, adding that many children tell themselves, "Oh, that's not going to happen to me," claiming that teachers and parents are being too overprotective. It's important to know that it can happen to anybody.

At T.C. Williams High School, computers are a valuable resource, but Porter recognizes that along with today's technological advances come inevitable risks.

"Problems can develop, and we try to cover as many bases as we can to protect people," he said.

Providing Internet safety awareness to students in classrooms today should lead to more technologically savvy parents of the future, who will better understand the dangers children face online and take the necessary precautionary steps to help protect them.
Sherry Watkins Contributing Writer