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.
Lily Pinner, a freshman, sets her MySpace page on private and lists her age as 99. But she said a friend's 4-year-old sister recently ventured onto the site, writing friendly messages with her name and age and noting that she lives "in a big house."
"I said, 'You don't want to tell people that.' She said, 'Why?'" Lily said, adding that it's hard because she doesn't want to scare the girl but wants to keep her safe. "I said, 'Because some people aren't nice.' "
"They still believe everyone is good and the bad guy always loses," added freshman Labiba Ahmed.
One in seven children ages 10 to 17 has been sexually solicited while online, according to the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children. Thirty-four percent of those youths also acknowledged communicating online with individuals they did not know, and more and more are posting personal information and photos on the Internet, according to the organization.
"The reality is, kids have this sense of immortality and can do some remarkably dangerous things, putting themselves at risk," said Ernie Allen, National Center for Exploited and Missing Children's chief executive.
He likened Internet safety classes to driver's education.
"Just like a lot of good things, there is a dark side," he said. "Driving an automobile is a positive thing, but there are risks."
Allen said other states should follow Virginia's "pioneering" effort. Already, he said, politicians and elected officials from other states have contacted his organization for more information. Texas and Illinois also passed laws to promote teaching of Internet safety.
"What we like about the Virginia model is when you mandate it, you can be sure it's going to be done," Allen said. "We know schools have a lot to do, but it's hard to imagine something that is more important and can have greater impact right now."
Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) has said that more than half the world's Internet traffic flows through Virginia because MCI and America Online operate in the state.
Del. William H. Fralin Jr. (R-Roanoke) said he introduced the Virginia legislation, which passed in 2006, when his oldest child was 10 and had just started using the Internet. He said his wife raised the question of safety.
"She said, 'How do we know who he's talking to and what's going on?' and I said, 'I don't know,' " Fralin said.
The state initiative calls for including parents. One chapter in a state resource book covers "What Parents, Grandparents, and Caregivers Need to Know." In Arlington, some Parent-Teacher Association chapters have heard public service announcements on the subject. And on Thursday, parents met at an Alexandria elementary school to talk about Internet safety.
"I tell parents this all the time, and they are horrified, but e-mail is for old people," said Elizabeth Hoover, Alexandria's instructional technology coordinator. "We have to raise our level of awareness for our teachers and community members. We can't move forward without doing that."
Charlie Makela, library services supervisor for Arlington schools, said that people tend to think of Internet safety in terms of online predators, but that "it's much, much more than that." It's about cyber-bullying, copyright infringement, text messaging and social networking.
"I don't think many children understand that if you post a picture or information on a bulletin board, a physical bulletin board, you can take that picture down and it's gone. If I post it on the Internet, it's never gone," Makela said, adding they also don't realize Facebook owns whatever items are put on its site. "We click on the accept-the-terms-of-use agreement, but we really don't know what we're agreeing to."
Makela said that in pilot programs at elementary, middle and high schools, educators found the children were savvy but still had much to learn. The challenge was finding the best way to reach each group.
"A kindergarten student might be told a virus is something that can make you sick, where at middle school and upper levels, we would talk about Trojan horses," Makela said.
Linda Wilkoff, a guidance counselor at Charles Barrett Elementary School, said children were still singing songs about Internet safety weeks after a class there ended.
To make her points to the youngsters, Wilkoff drew age-appropriate analogies. Posting personal information is like a dinosaur footprint that exists forever. Or like toothpaste: Once it's squeezed out of the tube, it can't be put back in.
"One of my students said, 'You know Ms. Wilkoff, this is making me kind of worry,' " she said. "I said, 'That's good.' "