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Safe surfing for students

Schools try to protect kids on Internet, but time spent at home is biggest worry

POSTED: December 7, 2008 1:00 a.m.

Lakeview Academy's Web warning

A public service announcement made by Lakeview Academy students warns kids and parents about the dangers of unchecked Internet access.

SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Lakeview Academy students use computers in the school's Cleveland Lab for study. The school implements safety programs to keep students focused on learning and away from online predators and Web sites with a prurient interest.

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We teach children not to talk to strangers. And we don't let them watch R-rated movies when they're in third grade.

Yet many parents unwittingly plop their children down in front of a computer, which can be a portal to a virtual red light district, without thinking twice.

The federal government requires schools to use computer Internet filters to prevent children from accessing inappropriate content. But it's what youngsters are doing with computers outside the school house that worries educators and authorities most.

Connie White, director of technology at Lakeview Academy and president of Atlanta Area Technology Educators, said the integration of computers into nearly every classroom makes Internet safety education as vital to children's success as reading, writing and math.

White is emerging as a leading advocate for proactive Internet safety education programs in the state. She said the 150 personal laptops Lakeview high school student use led her to teach Lakeview Academy students how to tackle the ugly issues of the Internet: pornography, predators and cyber-bullying.

The laptops have Internet filters on them that "blacklist" Web sites with adult content or poor educational value, including social networking sites MySpace and Facebook. Yet White said the issue of Internet safety is one all schools should address.

"I'm a huge proponent of technology in education because I feel like it can enhance learning, but there is a dark side," she said. "We have to be willing to take that on ... if we want our children to be productive in the future and be successful. I don't think many (parents) understand the magnitude of the issue."

White said her mission to implement Internet safety education programs in schools took on a new sense of urgency when she helped a friend review her 15-year-old son's Internet history on the computer in his bedroom. The results of the search were devastating. The 15-year-old boy had a collection of child pornography, which is a felony under federal law.

Aaron Turpin, executive director of technology for Hall County schools, is responsible for ensuring the school system's 8,000 computers have filtering programs that limit both students' and teachers' Internet access.

He said the system's filtering network errs on the side of being too protective, which can sometimes prevent students from accessing legitimate Web sites while doing research for papers or projects. In the past 30 days, Hall County students collectively visited 220 million Web sites; 8 million of those were blocked by the filter program.

"The filtering that we have to do limits some of the resources that could be beneficial to our students, but the bottom line is we're going to filter," Turpin said. "As a parent of a child in Hall County schools, I do not want my child to be exposed to inappropriate content. Frankly, I've got a concern that some of our parents are a little naive about the need for filters on your home computer."

White said the technology gap between parents stuck in the Dewey decimal system era and their offspring - often members of the virtual world - gives kids an edge over parents in navigating around guardians' meager or sometimes nonexistent attempts to control their Web surfing.

In the past two years, White has spoken to more than 60 groups, including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. She's also spoken at schools, civic group meetings, colleges and churches in an effort to help parents and educators catch up on the technology they need to keep children safe.

Turpin said many schools' guidance counselors also can provide parents with information on how to protect their students from accessing inappropriate online content from home.

Darby Thompson, 17, is a Lakeview Academy student who is part of the school's four-member E-Safe Georgia representative team. The group travels to middle schools in the metro-Atlanta area to teach kids ways to keep themselves out of trouble online.

"I think it's more effective when they hear it from high school students or teenagers than adults," she said.

Thompson added that kids are increasingly technologically savvy, and parents should pay attention to children's online habits. She said her mother is her friend on Facebook, and often keeps tabs on her online existence.

"I think there is a gap in that some of the parents don't realize that ... some of the kids know tricks and can go and get around things beyond their parents' imagination," she said.

White said, however, too often kids don't have to go looking for trouble. Many times, it finds them.
She urges parents to sit down with children in their early elementary years to discuss basic rules of the Internet. White said it's important to teach children how to block e-mails or messages from people online who make them feel uncomfortable, and to direct kids to immediately inform a parent or adult.

She suggests parents establish Internet safety contracts with their children, so kids will know what is appropriate and what is not.

White said within four years, technology experts estimate 53 percent of elementary school children will be members of a virtual world, where even a 55-year-old man can pose as an adorable penguin in the virtual world Club Penguin.

"This is huge in our society," she said.

John Whitaker, the GBI's special agent in charge for the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said the threat is not just media hype; the dangers of the Internet are real.

Whitaker said the Georgia task force arrested 103 people in the state last year for Internet crimes against children, more arrests than any other similar task force made in the country in 2007. As of Nov. 1, the Georgia agency already had arrested 90 people this year for the same crimes.

Whitaker said the high number of arrests in Georgia could be due to the vast amount of resources the state has devoted to the agency.

He said it's alarming how quickly predators approach undercover agents posing as children in chat rooms or in children's virtual worlds, such as Webkinz.

"Just about every time we go into a chat room, within 10 minutes, we're approached by somebody," he said. "They're immediately into ‘What are you wearing? Do you want to see these pictures?'"

Whitaker said with the click of a mouse on "yes," explicit video footage pops up.

Whitaker said it's crucial kids understand they should never share personal information - addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers or credit card numbers - with people they meet online. And a face-to-face meeting with an online acquaintance is typically a staunch no-no.

Hall County Sheriff's Col. Jeff Strickland said the sheriff's office has made 28 arrests in the past two years at various locations in Hall County where online predators were expecting to meet children in person. He said deputies have made arrests at the movie theater on Dawsonville Highway as well as at Lakeshore Mall, both places kids are typically eager to go that seem safe.

Despite all these arrests, Whitaker said federal authorities estimate officials are catching only 2 to 10 percent of criminals who commit crimes against children using the Internet. He said children often don't tell their parents about inappropriate people who approach them on the Internet because they fear the parents will limit their access to the technology.

Whitaker said the GBI is now working with the state Department of Education to install NetSafe on school computer networks across the state. He said the program is already used nationally in Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Whitaker said the program would create an atmosphere of Internet safety in schools, where students who somehow stumble upon inappropriate content in schools would be immediately directed to take action and report it to the proper authorities.

White said she feels it's up to parents and educators to take the reins of their children's virtual lives and real-life morals. White said she is currently awaiting the announcement of a grant award that could allow her to expand her mission.

"We have to make sure the education is there, the policies are there and the structure is there to protect them and keep them safe. We just have to learn to still keep our values and communicate those values to our kids so they'll have a starting point," she said.

"So many (parents) don't want to know. They feel they're so far behind in that gap, that they can't catch up, but they can. Our young people are good innately, we just need to facilitate that."



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