Law Tells Schools to Teach Students About Online Safety

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

RICHMOND -- Virginia public schools will be required to teach students about Internet safety under a law passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) last month.

The law, which takes effect July 1, is designed to ensure that tech-savvy children understand the dangers lurking in cyberspace. The measure's sponsor, Del. William H. Fralin Jr. (R-Roanoke), said he wrote the bill after his oldest son turned 10 and started competing with his parents for computer time.

"It raised a question in my mind," he said. "We teach our kids not to talk to strangers. We teach our kids not to take candy. But in today's world on the Internet, not only can you be talking to strangers without supervision, but you can be talking to someone you think is not a stranger, but who is one. There needs to be some sort of basic training on that."

The law directs the state Department of Education to issue guidelines to schools for integrating Internet safety into their regular instruction. Fralin said many children encounter dangers with computers at home, not at school, but because some parents are technologically inexpert, schools need to step in.

"In some cases the parents are more technologically challenged than their kids are," he said. "We've certainly sat down with my son and talked about Internet safety. But to tell you the truth, I'd be more comfortable if someone with more knowledge talked to him."

Many local schools are already teaching students about online safety, sometimes in classrooms and sometimes more informally.

In Fairfax, all seventh-graders enrolled in family life education classes get a course on Internet dangers, including a video and a fact sheet designed for them to take home and share with their parents.

"We talk about having them trust their feelings," said Elizabeth T. Payne, the county's health and physical education coordinator. "If you think something's not right, get out, get off."

At T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, where every student is issued a school-owned laptop, students also get lessons on the appropriate use of those computers. That includes safety information -- and warnings against visiting off-limits Web sites. Principal John Porter said teachers follow up with spot-checks to see where children are surfing and what they're posting.

"Sometimes [students] don't think someone's really looking, particularly school folks," he said. "Certainly, with technology, you can't check everybody all the time. . . . But, of course, word spreads quickly once we do a check, and then they know we have people who know how to get to the spots they know how to get to."

Teachers and principals agree part of their job is to educate parents so they develop a better sense of what their children are doing online. Bull Run Middle School in Prince William County holds daytime coffees and evening seminars during school dances for parents to talk about the problem of cyber bullying. That's when children tease each other or pose as one another in instant messages or chat rooms, sometimes spreading vicious gossip or rumors.

Principal William Bixby said that although the bullying usually occurs after school, arguments and hurt feelings can spill into the classroom.

School officials said children need more than one day of classroom discussion to absorb the message. After all, many have already been told that it is unwise to reveal personal information or talk to strangers online.

"The trend with people in general, and maybe kids a little more, is to think, 'It won't happen to me,' " Porter said. "It's important for them to know that not only might it, but it really does."

The new law, the school officials agreed, is an important step to formalize what so far have been ad hoc conversations in many areas.

"Students have such ready access to computers," Payne said. "They need to know how to protect themselves."

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, nearly one in five children ages 10 to 17 have been sexually solicited online.

There have been many news reports about students posting personal and potentially embarrassing information about themselves in Web logs and on sites such as myspace.com. Such data can make children targets for Internet predators searching for children to befriend. It can also follow them as they age, creating problems when they apply to colleges and for jobs.

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