Virginia Tries to Ensure Students' Safety in Cyberspace

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008

Alan Portillo didn't think much, if at all, about his online vulnerability. Then the 15-year-old heard technology teacher Wendy Maitland list three pieces of information an online predator would need to find him.

Birth date, she said. Alan's age was on his e-mail.

Gender. His full name was also on his e-mail and topped his MySpace page.

ZIP code. A photo on the page showed an area near his neighborhood, with "Arlington" emblazoned across one building.

"I thought it was nothing. But when I saw the examples, I started thinking, it's a big deal," the Wakefield High School freshman said. After the February lesson, he said, he deleted the photo and his last name from the page.

Virginia public schools will soon launch Internet safety lessons across all grade levels, responding to a state mandate that is the first of its kind in the nation. Even though today's students have known no life without the Internet, only a couple of states have laws that recommend schools teach online safety.

Maryland and the District both offer Internet safety education, but their programs are neither mandated nor spread across all grade levels. Sixteen technology coordinators in D.C. public schools last year received training in Internet safety education, and the District has plugged the topic in public service announcements. The Maryland State Board of Education last year adopted student technology literacy standards for elementary and middle school lessons.

In Virginia, local school systems have been rewriting policies, running pilot programs and putting final touches on lesson plans to be offered from kindergarten through 12th grade starting in September.

"One of the things we realized is there is no one-size-fits-all approach," said Tammy McGraw, the Virginia Department of Education's director of educational technology. "Ultimately what we're trying to do is ensure we have safe and responsible Internet users."

The state's goal is to integrate safety skills into the curriculum, not simply teach them in one lesson. An English lesson on truth and fiction, for example, could require a paper on what information online should be trusted.

"It's not something that we think can really be addressed by bringing children together in an assembly," McGraw said. "We think they have to think about it all the time."

One recent afternoon, two 15-year-old girls at Wakefield High discussed what they learned in a pilot Internet safety class: Misunderstood text messages can lead to hurt feelings; parents, too, can dole out too many details online about their children; and risks abound in using social networking sites.

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