As school officials try to navigate the murky waters of Internet-safety policies, one belief is resoundingly clear: Teaching children the skills they need to be safe online is a community effort, involving the help of schools, parents, researchers, and industry players.
That sentiment is what prompted leaders across the public and private sectors to gather in Washington on June 10 for what was billed as a national summit on Internet safety. The sponsors were Cable in the Classroom, Common Sense Media, iKeepSafe, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, or NCTA.
“Internet safety is every teacher and every person’s responsibility,” said Ann Fondren, the coordinator of library and media studies for the 25,000-student Spotsylvania County public schools in Virginia and a panelist at the summit. “It’s a conversation we can never stop having.”
Virginia recently became the first state to require that schools integrate Internet-safety lessons into the curriculum at every grade level. While the state is not mandating a specific curriculum, it has put together guidelines and resources to help districts make Internet safety part of their current curricula. The aim is to protect students from online sexual predators, Web-based bullying, and exposure to inappropriate content.
“The idea was that local school divisions would develop something that was locally appropriate,” said Tammy M. McGraw, the director of educational technology for the Virginia Department of Education. Now it’s up to district-level technology leaders to update their policies on acceptable use and determine how the guidelines and objectives best fit into local curricula.
“Everyone has a part to play,” said McGraw. “[Chief technology officers need to] look around and figure out where it makes sense to integrate [the objectives], how to integrate them, and what resources we need to be able to provide for teachers and parents.”
And other states may soon follow suit. “We certainly have had a fair number of questions from other states,” McGraw said. “I think everyone recognizes that the key to Internet safety is not just filters.”
“We can’t throw a safety net over the Internet,” said Joe Laramie, a police officer in the Glendale Police Department in Missouri and a member of the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. In addition to built-in Web filters on their computers, schools need to educate children about how to behave appropriately on the Internet, said Laramie, who also spoke at the conference. “We have to inspire and motivate [children] to protect [themselves].”
Depending too heavily on site-blocking and filtering can significantly limit the educational value of Internet resources and Web tools, panelists at the event suggested.
Lean King, the superintendent of the 5,600-student Encinitas Union School District near San Diego, said schools should aim to create a “trusted educational environment without blocking the rich resources that we want [students] to have access to.”
To be sure, allowing access to online tools increases the chances of abuse and inappropriate behavior, he warned. But the benefits of teaching students to use Web 2.0 tools and Internet resources in safe, controlled conditions outweighs those potential problems, he said.
To find that balance, King said, schools have “a real large professional-development responsibility to increase [the] staff’s awareness of social-networking sites and database resources, and the strength of the tools that are out there.”
Keeping parents in the loop is a vital part of a successful Internet-safety program, said King. “It’s the collective responsibility with parents, staff, and the community to ensure children’s safety.”
That collaborative mind-set is a shift from the early days of the Internet, said Linda Sharp, the project director for cyber security at the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking “Traditionally, schools said, ‘We are protecting [students] in school, and it is up to parents to handle security when they are at home,’ ” she said. But that hand-off of authority hasn’t worked, she said.
“Many times, students are so much more tech-savvy than their parents that parents [don’t] feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to ensure safety,” said Sharp. “Schools now realize that they have to work with parents by providing information, strategies, and support so that ... students understand the issues and can be monitored and protected as much as possible.”
Parents are often the first line of defense against online predators and inappropriate Internet behavior, the panelists pointed out.
“Parents need timely and relevant information,” in order to keep their children safe, said Stephen Balkam, the chief executive officer of the Family Online Safety Institute, an international nonprofit organization that promotes Internet safety. “Schools are a vital part of this.”
Acceptable-use policies help bring parents up to speed about Internet-safety regulations and could serve as a jumping-off point for a larger conversation between schools and parents about such safety, Balkam said.
And as technology continues to become a more powerful and pervasive force in children’s lives, it’s increasingly important for parents and educators to orient students to the positive uses of the Internet, rather than focusing solely on the risks, the panelists said.
By educating parents, students, and teachers about computer and technology ethics, educators can help harness students’ skills and allow them to “positively use their knowledge,” said Tracy Weeks, the director of instructional technology and media for the 11,000-student Chapel Hill-Carrboro city school district in North Carolina.
The ultimate goal, she said, “is for students to be global, digital citizens and know how to exist safely online.”