Program targets Internet safety

Posted: Wednesday, April 09, 2003

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is trying to make its students a little safer. But that doesn't mean installing metal detectors or hiring security guards for area buildings.

Rather, the district's concern is student safety on the Internet.

Last week, the district brought in a representative from I-Safe America, a national nonprofit organization that specializes in providing Internet safety curriculum for students.

The organization was founded in 1998 and has spent the last several years researching Internet dangers and educational strategies to develop a curriculum for schools. In July, I-Safe received a grant from the U.S. Justice Department to begin its mission and began reaching out to school districts in 24 states, including Alaska. Next year, the organization will expand to reach the remaining 26 states as well.

The Kenai Peninsula was the second Alaska school district to accept the I-Safe program. Laura McIntosh, an educational trainer with I-Safe, visited the peninsula last week to provide a number of training sessions, including an all-day teach-the-teacher seminar for area educators, a presentation to the Soldotna High School site council and a series of sample lessons for students at Soldotna Middle School.

"Our main goal is to teach kids to be safe and responsible when they're online," McIntosh said.

About 20 teachers attended the training seminar April 1, learning how to implement the program in area schools.

"Our hope is they'll take it back to their schools and use the curriculum," McIntosh said.

Given the reaction of area teachers and administrators, that's pretty likely.

"It's an impressive program," said Sam Stewart, the district's director of secondary education. "It has a lot to offer the community and the kids. I'm looking forward to teachers implementing it in their classes."

Soldotna Middle School teacher John Harro agreed.

"It's an exciting program," he said, noting that he would like to see it used not only in schools, but also in community forums, so that parents can help teach kids Internet safety at home as well.

Perhaps most noteworthy, however, was the reaction of the students who heard the sample lessons.

In at least one of the sessions, almost all the students said they corresponded with strangers in chat rooms online regularly. While the students seemed aware of some dangers, most had a fairly laid-back attitude toward online conversations.

Most said they visited teen chat rooms and talked to their cyber-friends about everything from school to the opposite sex to hobbies.

"Just stuff," the students said.

The kids also said they believed most of what their cyber-friends told them -- their ages, genders, locations and names.

And several said they regularly exchanged pictures with their online buddies.

But the students also said they weren't completely unaware of the dangers of online conversations. Most said they would never go alone to meet someone they met online. At the very least, they said, they would ask a friend to go along.

By the end of McIntosh's presentation, however, the students had changed their tune, walking away with a clear list of do's and don'ts for chat room practices and an intention to tell their school friends what they had learned.

McIntosh told the students several stories about real teen-agers who had been tricked by the people they met online. Some were abducted by strangers they had gone to meet. Others had even been killed by predators from the Internet.

Though she insisted such dangers were very real, McIntosh said she didn't want to scare students away from using the Internet or even chat rooms.

"I don't want you to think you can't go online to talk, but do it safely," she said.

Among her tips:

Chat only with friends from school or family connections.

Avoid giving any identifying information to strangers, including a real name, address, phone number or picture. Also, she said students should avoid giving more vague identifying information, such as a school name or particular weather information, which online predators could piece together over time.

Erase any Internet profiles that may allow strangers to access personal information.

Assume that anything online strangers say is false. Most students acknowledged they had lied about their age or name online. McIntosh said the students had to assume other people could do the same.

Question motives. If someone offers expensive gifts or travel arrangements for nothing in exchange, their motives probably are not pure, McIntosh told students. Likewise, young people should question how other supposed teen-agers would have access to money for such gifts.

Never meet someone met online. While students may think taking a friend along to meet a stranger sounds safe, the stranger could bring five friends -- or a weapon -- McIntosh said. If a student were to meet a person from the Internet, a parent or adult should go along at the very least.

If an online conversation includes a threat or any comment that makes a student uncomfortable, the student should immediately talk to an adult.

"Take it seriously if you feel threatened, and don't feel that you have to take care of it on your own," McIntosh said.

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