Microsoft adds new privacy features to its web browser

In an effort to address concerns about online privacy, Microsoft Corp. is beta-testing new “privacy-enhancing” features for its latest web browser, Internet Explorer 5.5, which will be available to the schools and others by the end of the summer.

Although the two leading web browsers used by schools, Internet Explorer and Netscape, already include customizable features that notify users about incoming cookies, Microsoft’s new features promise to give users a better understanding of different types of cookies and where they come from.

Cookies, or tiny files placed on a computer’s hard drive, help web sites identify returning visitors. Many web sites use cookies to profile web surfers’ online behavior by noting their every mouse click, recording such information as eMail addresses, clothing sizes, and zip codes.

This function is helpful when you’ve established a relationship with a web site and you want to go back and have special, personalized services delivered to your browser, such as an automatic login or your local weather forecast.

But it’s not just the web site you’re browsing that might be feeding you cookies. Behind the scenes, third-party market research firms and advertising networks, such as DoubleClick and Engage, also plant cookies on your computer. These third-party cookies often are used to measure web usage and create targeted advertising.

Imagine being followed every time you go shopping and having someone record everything you look at. That’s what third-party cookies do on the web. And that’s what worries online privacy advocates.

“The biggest concern about cookies has always been third-party cookies,” said Ari Schwartz, privacy policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “There are third parties spying on you—people you don’t have a relationship with.”

In a sense, third-party cookies take unauthorized information from people.

“When that same information is stored by a third party, you don’t have to be notified,” Schwartz said. The government could seize that information from the company holding it or the company could sell it, he warns.

Although he hasn’t seen Microsoft’s online privacy-enhancing features, Schwartz said he is certainly encouraged by the idea.

IE’s new security features

When a cookie is being served or read on the hard drive, Internet Explorer 5.5 will alert the user with a pop-up message that will tell if the cookie is from a first or third party and give the option to accept or refuse the cookie.

IE also will give the user the choice to get more information about cookies from the help menu; Microsoft plans to add new help topics that address cookies and cookie management. Microsoft said users will get “balanced descriptions” of cookies and their uses, clearly differentiating between first- and third-party cookies.

In addition, Microsoft has added a “delete all cookies” button to its customizable controls, located under the Preferences menu, where users can adjust how the browser handles cookies.

“Microsoft is not opposed to the use of third-party persistent cookies. In fact, this is a primary business model of the web, used by small, medium, and large web sites, including ours,” Richard Purcell, Microsoft’s director of corporate privacy, said in a press release.

“We all want to educate, not alarm, consumers about cookies,” Purcell said. “With these new features, consumers will have a much better understanding of how cookies are used by sites that are collecting information and tailoring pages to fit the consumer’s preferences.”

But some observers say more needs to be done.

“Third-party cookies should just be stopped,” said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a privacy advocacy group. “It’s not fair to place a tracking device that the user isn’t even aware of.”

He suggests that schools install ad-blocking software such as Guidescope and set their browsers to block cookies.

“Parents shouldn’t have to worry that their children are being continually tracked on the web,” Catlett said. “It’s fairly easy for school administrators to put a stop to web tracking with all of the filters available.”

Microsoft’s latest privacy technology comes at a time when the issue of protecting students’ privacy online is being examined by Congress.

United States Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is spearheading an effort to require schools to get parents’ consent before they accept free computer equipment and internet services from companies. In exchange for such gifts, he argues, schools let companies gather valuable marketing information from students.

“If parents do not want their children to be objects of market research firms while in school, they should have the right to say ‘no,'” Miller said in April, when the House education committee added a parental consent provision to a larger education policy bill.

The legislation would require schools to get parental permission before a company can collect personal information from students and use it for commercial purposes. Schools that didn’t comply could lose their eligibility for federal funding.

Stephanie Ash, director of technology services at Dothan City Schools in Alabama, said she is not worried about online privacy or web tracking at school because of the logistics of internet use in classrooms and computer labs, although she doesn’t like features that let things happen behind the scenes.

“You have eight individuals who are using a machine each day, not including the students who do after-school assignments,” Ash said. “At home, I want to know when those cookies are coming about, but in a classroom situation with so many users, it wouldn’t be accurate data.”

Douglas Smith, technology coordinator at Indiana’s Beech Grove High School, said Microsoft’s informative notification might make students ask more questions—but, ultimately, it won’t make a difference.

“This whole generation of kids is pretty ignorant about the information they give over out over the web. I don’t think this generation of kids will give a hoot,” Smith said. “They really don’t understand about privacy and its ramifications.”

Platform for Privacy Preferences

This update for IE is Microsoft’s first step toward establishing a privacy solution based on the Platform for Privacy Preferences Program (P3P), which is a privacy technology being developed by the World Wide Web Consortium.

The group is developing standards that will provide an automated way for web surfers to find out how the sites they visit handle their personal information. P3P-compliant web sites make their privacy policies readable by P3P-enabled browsers, so the browser can compare the site’s policy to the user’s own set of privacy preferences.

“Cookie management alone is not the answer to consumer privacy,” Microsoft’s Purcell said. That’s why Microsoft is working with other industry participants to promote the adoption of the P3P specification, which helps users decide if the web sites they visit meet their privacy preferences.

In June, Junkbusters and the Electronic Privacy Information Center released a report, called “Pretty Poor Privacy,” that says the P3P specification is inadequate at maintaining privacy.

“We’ve been critical of P3P as a technology that’s not going to do much about online privacy,” said Junkbusters’ Catlett.

The report describes P3P as “a complex and confusing protocol that will make it more difficult for internet users to protect their privacy” and “likely to undermine public confidence in internet privacy.”

According to the New York Times, the Federal Trade Commission soon might endorse a privacy agreement, negotiated with the advertising industry, that sets rules about “profiling” to protect web surfers. The agreement states that companies would be allowed to self-regulate their practices, but advertisers would have to tell web surfers if they are profiling and give them the choice not to participate.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Center for Democracy and Technology
http://www.cdt.org

Junkbusters
http://www.junkbusters.com

Platform for Privacy Preferences Program
http://www.w3.org/P3P

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Union demands liability protection when students abuse teachers’ computers

In what might be a first in the nation, the school board in St. Lucie County, Fla., has tentatively agreed to a collective bargaining demand that will protect teachers from liability should students access inappropriate material on the internet. The agreement was set to take effect in August.

The issue arose after police charged two St. Lucie teachers in separate incidents involving computers and pornography. It was students acting without permission, not they, who had used the computers to access pornography, both teachers said. Charges ultimately were dropped in both cases.

In the wake of these incidents, the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers Association successfully negotiated a clause that would protect teachers from liability for “unauthorized use” of school computers by their students, as long as teachers follow proper school board policy in preventing such use.

“I think the union was looking for assurance that [teachers wouldn’t] be held responsible for a person other than themselves accessing inappropriate material without their knowledge,” said Sue Renew, director of personnel for the St. Lucie County school system. “That said, teachers are responsible for providing appropriate supervision.”

The St. Lucie case marks a growing trend in school systems across the country, according to the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union. As more schools connect their classrooms to the internet—raising a host of legal issues in the process—teacher unions are heading for the bargaining table with the issue of liability for student internet safety.

“I do know that other associations have included in their contract bargaining language for the use of the internet,” said Barbara Stein, senior policy analyst for the NEA’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “With students having so much access to the internet, we do not want teachers blamed for student misuse, as long as there is not a flagrant lack of student supervision.

“You can’t leave a group of fifth graders alone with a computer for four hours,” she continued. “But even with filtering software, it is just not possible to make sure students can’t ever see something inappropriate.”

The highly publicized events in St. Lucie involved allegations that county teachers allowed students to view pornographic web sites in class.

In December, eighth-grade science teacher Edra Tullis was arrested and suspended without pay after evidence of visits to more than 600 pornographic sites was found on his computer at Lincoln Park Academy. Tullis was charged with displaying obscenity to a minor, a felony offense.

The charges were dropped in April. Throughout the ordeal, Tullis maintained that he rarely used his computer. He said he suspected students may have viewed the questionable sites without his knowledge. Tullis has since resigned, claiming in a news conference that he was “unfairly treated from the start.”

The other incident occurred at St. Lucie’s Westwood High School in April, when a student was able to pull up pornography on teacher Charles Johnson’s computer. Charges were dropped against Johnson when other students testified they had seen a 15-year-old boy access the pornography when Johnson stepped out of the classroom.

Clara Cook, president of the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers Association, told the Port St. Lucie News, “There are some very serious consequences for teachers when this kind of thing is found on their computers—and there should be—but we don’t have enough security and safeguards in place to know who went to a site.”

Following these incidents, a 14-member task force was created to address proper internet use and safety in the county’s schools.

Meanwhile, the St. Lucie school board and teachers’ union have concluded contract negotiations and will vote to ratify the contract sometime in August.

According to Renew, the language regarding the county’s new internet policy, pending ratification, reads: “A teacher shall not be liable for unauthorized use of a computer by another person unless it can be proven that a teacher did not follow school board procedures in preventing unauthorized use. All teachers are required to follow school board policy, including St. Lucie County school board’s acceptable use policy, [which] will be provided to each teacher at the start of the school year.”

Procedures to prevent unauthorized use of computers include always logging off a computer before leaving a classroom and making sure doors are locked so students can’t access computers when a teacher isn’t in the room, Renew said.

Renew said deliberations regarding internet policy were inevitable, regardless of the recent and highly publicized security breaches: “Teachers were calling for this. The proposal was put on the table by the union and the school board didn’t have a problem with it, because when an investigation is conducted, we don’t want to discipline someone for something someone else did.

“It’s not fear that motivated this, but certainly teachers are concerned about the security of the technology that’s in place,” she continued. “We take strong disciplinary action against those found viewing inappropriate material and, of course, people worry about someone else logging on to their computer.”

School officials in St. Lucie County say the district uses the CyberPatrol filter on their network, but officials admit that filters are not foolproof.

School law expert David Splitt agreed, saying, “There is just no software that can protect against this sort of thing. Kids are just too smart.”

Links:

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

Port St. Lucie News
http://www.tcpalm.com/portstlucie/index.shtml

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From supe to ‘nets: Seattle Public Schools taps a superintendent as its new technology chief

It’s not often that the superintendent of a 29,000-student district leaves her post to head the technology department of another school system. And it’s equally rare for a large, high-profile urban district to appoint a career teacher and administrator with no formal computer education as its technology chief.

But that’s just what happened when Seattle Public Schools tapped Judy Margrath-Huge, superintendent for the past six years at Adams Twelve Five Star Schools in Northglenn, Colo., as its new chief information officer (CIO) in June.

“Being a superintendent was wonderful, but [it] doesn’t mean you always have to be,” Margrath-Huge said. She said the Adams Twelve school board offered to extend her contract, but she welcomed the chance to make a difference with technology instead.

Dick Barkey, the executive director of information technology at Margrath-Huge’s former district, understands her decision to work for the Seattle Public Schools.

“Most of us in similar jobs work with budgets that range from $1.5 million to $5 million,” said Barkey. “To have [$26 million in resources] available would be very attractive, especially for those who think technology adds to the quality of education.”

As CIO, Margrath-Huge will assume responsibility for the district’s technology functions, including its computer systems and support, instructional technology, telecommunications, broadcast studio, and library services.

She’ll also get to spend a $25.9 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Magrath-Huge’s selection as Seattle CIO might signal an upgrade in how school technology managers are coming to be viewed. As school districts continue to boost their investment in learning technologies, the position of technology chief is evolving into an increasingly important role, a role in which political leadership and educational vision count as much as technical savvy.

“To have someone with superintendent skills and superintendent capabilities on our team to lead our information effort is really tremendous,” said Seattle Superintendent Joseph Olchefske.

“Judy’s role is going to be far more than a traditional technology CIO-type position,” Olchefske said. “Her role is to use the power of information technology to really drive school reform and transformation.”

Margrath-Huge’s abilities and skills make her “fluent in the operational areas—like budget and logistics and construction and technology—but also fluent in the instructional and programmatic areas of school reform,” said Olchefske.

She also has a superintendent’s ability to work well with large groups of people, he added.

“I’m not a software engineer by any means, and I couldn’t pull open the back of a computer and rewire it,” Margrath-Huge said. “That’s not the kind of experience I’m bringing to the position.”

Because superintendents are responsible for all facets of education, Margrath-Huge’s background provides a strong foundation for leading the implementation of both technology and reform, Olchefske said.

The opportunity to work in an urban, vibrant district with an unusually large technology budget was very appealing, Margrath-Huge said.

“Seattle Public Schools [are] at a very exciting time right now, implementing student standards and looking at how technology can enhance student learning and administration,” she said.

Margrath-Huge said she plans to use technology to reinvent schooling and instructional media.

“Not only are reinvention of schooling and structural processes important, but you need funding to do it,” she said. “This $26 million [grant] gives us the opportunity to do it much quicker.”

Her primary goal, she said, is to support the district’s vision of increasing student achievement.

“The Gates grant is not about buying hardware or software. It’s about meeting the students’ needs,” Margrath-Huge said. In particular, she wants to invest in technology that will target students who are not being challenged or who are being left behind.

Her other goals include merging the information systems team with the information technology team, implementing a new student information system, and having a say in the school’s reform agenda.

She also said she wants to coordinate technology activities into grade-level benchmarks and make those activities easily accessible to teachers.

Although she’ll have lots of money to spend, Margrath-Huge anticipates some challenges in her new position.

“There is an achievement gap in Seattle Public Schools,” she said. “All ethnic groups’ and gender groups’ scores are increasing, but there is still a gap in the scores.”

She also has to figure out how to address the various levels of technology in the district’s schools—and teachers’ disparate abilities to use it.

“Not all the schools have been wired,” she said. “We have different levels of needs. Some people are way farther ahead than others.”

The successful implementation of meaningful technology in the Seattle schools will require thoughtful planning, Margrath-Huge said.

“We need to keep this whole use of technology in perspective,” she said. “The goal isn’t to increase technology. The goal is to use technology to increase student achievement.”

Links:

Seattle Public Schools
http://www.seattleschools.org

Adams Twelve Five Star Schools
http://www.ad12.k12.co.us

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Some schools are fighting poor acoustics with microphones and amplifiers

This spring, the classrooms of Concord Elementary School in Portland, Ore., buzzed with the ordinary sounds of a grade school: student voices, feet landing on soft carpets, and rustling papers.

But Elizabeth Mueller’s classroom was something altogether different. Mueller’s crisp voice—carried by microphone and a small speaker stationed atop the chalkboard—dominated the room, finding its way even to the most reluctant ear.

For Mueller, a veteran elementary school teacher accustomed to competing with the knock and rattle of an ancient heating system, the microphone has become as elemental as chalk and paper. The fourth-grade teacher no longer strains her voice to get students’ attention. She also knows her hearing-impaired students aren’t struggling to hear her.

Across the country, hundreds of elementary schools have installed microphone and speaker systems in classrooms, libraries, cafeterias, and even gymnasiums.

The microphones make it easier for young students to hear their teachers over background noises common in grade-school classrooms.

In the past three years, elementary school classrooms in Oregon’s Gresham-Barlow, Portland, Reynolds, Beaverton, and North Clackamas districts, where Concord is, have been wired for sound at an estimated cost of $1,000 per room.

The result, teachers and principals say, is a dramatic difference in students’ listening and speaking skills.

Students sitting in the last row of the classroom hear as well as those in the front. And because many classrooms are equipped with a second microphone for students to use when speaking, teachers say their students are clamoring to speak out.

“Even if you are timid and shy, everybody hears you and can understand you,” said Lori Prouty, whose son, Spencer, is in Mueller’s class. “It makes a huge difference in the attention span of the kids.”

Audiologists and speech experts say classroom sound systems are growing in popularity nationwide in response to research that shows poor classroom acoustics hinders listening and learning.

An Ohio State University study conducted last year by speech and hearing experts found poor acoustics in 30 out of 32 grade school classrooms in central Ohio.

Voices bounced off hard classroom floors, drowning out words and interfering with students’ ability to listen, researchers found.

The hiss and whir of heating and cooling systems were among the biggest sources of noise.

For children, being able to hear clearly is crucial to developing language, audiologists said.

Poor acoustics only compound problems for the hearing impaired; up to one-third of students in primary grades experience some temporary hearing loss due to infections or wax buildup in their ears on any given day.

“Young kids, whether they are hearing-impaired or not, have more trouble in noisy environments because they are still learning their language,” said Lawrence Feth, a professor of speech and hearing science at Ohio State and one of the researchers who participated in the classroom acoustics study.

“They need even quieter backgrounds or stronger speech signals in order to get the same level of information that adults have,” he said.

Teachers have long tried to compensate for poor acoustics by laying pieces of carpet on tile floors or sticking tennis balls on the feet of metal chairs to keep them from scraping.

Some schools hang sound-absorbing paneling on walls to dull noise.

Microphones are just the latest way educators are trying to improve sound quality in the classroom. And there is evidence to show that it works.

A 1993-95 study done in Florida found children in amplified classrooms paid attention longer, completed their assignments in reading and math, and generally maintained an academic edge over their peers in nonamplified rooms, said Gail G. Rosenberg, an audiologist with the Sarasota schools in Florida and one of the leaders of the study.

Rosenberg works with students with hearing impairment and evaluates classroom amplification systems in Sarasota schools.

The study involved 94 classrooms in 33 schools and is the most comprehensive look to date at the effectiveness of microphones in the classroom, it was reported.

In addition to improved performance among students, the study found that microphones protected teachers’ voices, Rosenberg said.

“Teachers are less stressed because their voices aren’t damaged or strained the way you are when you have to project over everyone,” said Thelma Rueppell, principal at Bethany Elementary in Beaverton, Ore., where classrooms are amplified.

Students in these classrooms also are more willing to speak out, teachers said.

“Using the hand-held microphone just gives them a feel of self-confidence, that there is something they can rely on to project their voice,” said Teri Geist, principal at Laurelhurst Elementary, where every room was amplified about 18 months ago.

The school, one of three in Portland using amplification, bought an estimated $22,000 in equipment with grants and parent contributions, Geist said.

Prouty, the Concord Elementary parent, thought microphones would help her son, who experienced occasional hearing impairment because of ear infections. She suggested the idea after attending a computer class where the instructor used a microphone.

“I could hear,” she said. “I was following so well. The second day, his microphone broke. I just couldn’t believe the difference just in my own comprehension as far as how clearly I could hear and understand. The difference between the two days was night and day.”

Five months later, Prouty said she’s noticed a difference when she volunteers in her son’s class. Students pay more attention, and they are eager to speak in front of their classmates.

Now, she’s raising money to buy amplification systems for the entire school.

“I don’t want my sons to ever be in a classroom without it,” she said.

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‘Bluetooth’ will streamline school connectivity, proponents say

For years, computer scientists have been trying to find a way to connect the latest wireless gadgets so they can interface with one another seamlessly. Now, supporters of the new “Bluetooth” technology believe it could be the answer for schools and businesses that want to streamline their technology.

Bluetooth, named after Harald Bluetooth the medieval Danish king who unified Denmark and Norway, uses radio waves to enable palm-top devices, laptops, and cell phones to “talk” to one another. Like its namesake, the technology aims to bring together the warring “factions” of technology under a unified banner.

According to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, the term Bluetooth refers to a “de facto standard, as well as a specification for … low-cost, short-range radio links between mobile PCs, mobile phones, and other portable devices.”

Radio technology is a far more economical alternative to installing telephones into mobile PCs, Bluetooth’s supporters claim. Why? The cost of installing a telephone in all laptops is too high, there are too many types of phones to choose from, and there is no universally accepted standard for cell phones around the world.

In a time when connectivity is becoming increasingly integral to education, wireless technology has become the “holy grail” for many school officials seeking the ultimate in portable, interactive devices. Bluetooth’s supporters say the technology soon could offer schools the following benefits:

  • Bluetooth will enable a laptop user to surf the internet without a cordless connection through a mobile phone, and without a telephone jack to plug into.

  • Documents will be instantly accessible to participants in meetings and conferences without any wired land connections.

  • Users will be able to connect their wireless headsets to their mobile phones, laptops, or any wired connection to keep their hands free in the car or at their desk.

  • Bluetooth will enable automatic synchronization of a user’s desktop, laptop, and mobile phone. For example, if an appointment is entered into a user’s laptop, the same entry automatically will show up on the user’s desktop computer as well.

Bluetooth technology will allow a cell phone to function in three ways, proponents say. At home, the phone will operate from a fixed line charge. When the user is traveling, it will operate with a cellular charge. When the cell phone comes within range of another Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, it will operate like a walkie-talkie (no phone charge at all).

According to Steve Parker, product line manager for new mobile platforms at 3Com Corp. and one of the foremost experts on Bluetooth technology, 30 percent of people right now have a cell phone, a Palm device, a laptop, or more than one of these products. If a person is carrying more than one of these products on their person, the devices will be able to “talk” to one another if they are Bluetooth-enabled.

This means that if a user is carrying a cell phone and a laptop, he or she can call up the internet with the cell phone, which then can wirelessly connect the user’s laptop through Bluetooth’s radio signals, assuming both devices are within range of one another. Potentially, this means no more plugging the cell phone into the laptop to get internet access.

Parker believes the technology will have a significant impact on education. “New technologies are often more readily adopted by the younger generation,” he said. He also noted that busy school administrators also stand to benefit.

Daryl Ann Borel, assistant superintendent for technology at Houston Independent School District, also sees the potential of Bluetooth-enabled technology for schools. “It will be useful not just during the school day, but also, in an urban school district like Houston, we need to take steps to bridge the digital divide any way we can. The issue here is connectivity,” she said.

Parker said that schools wishing to employ Bluetooth technology would have to install wireless access points in areas of the school where personal computing and the use of Palm Pilots and cell phones is allowed, such as the cafeteria, office, or computer lab. The wireless access points are about the size as a smoke detector and are wired to the network. Students, teachers, and administrators within range of one of the access points could connect directly to the internet wirelessly.

“With high-powered radio signals, the access point has a 100-meter radius in open air. But in a building or an office, with things like walls and cubicles blocking the way, we realistically expect the radius to be about 30 meters,” said Parker.

“What this means in terms of streamlining for schools and school administrators is that if they deploy these Bluetooth access points within their school environment, they can control the access of the people within that environment,” he added. “This way, the school administrators are in control of what services they provide and to whom.”

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), comprising leaders in the telecommunications, computing, and network industries, is driving development of the technology and bringing it to market. The group includes promoter companies 3Com, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, and Toshiba, as well as several “Adopter/Associate” member companies.

The Bluetooth SIG exists to promote the Bluetooth wireless technology, to ensure the interoperability of diverse qualified Bluetooth products, to handle relevant legal matters, and to drive the development of next-generation technology.

According to Parker, Ericsson has announced it will be shipping a cell phone with Bluetooth capability in the third quarter of this year, and a wave of products from other companies will be released toward the end of the year. Most analysts are saying that by the end of next year, all manners of devices will be rolled out with Bluetooth capability.

“Practically all manufacturers of electronic products are working on this,” Parker said.

Price will not be a deterrent to those interested in implementing Bluetooth, Parker said. “Today, the cost for the silicon in the chip is around $20 or $30, but we believe this will come down toward the first of the year to less than half of that. I expect the second generation to be in the $7 to $10 range. By the third generation, it may be down to $5,” he said.

Links:

Bluetooth
http://www.bluetooth.com

Houston Independent School District
http://www.houston.isd.tenet.edu

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FBI urges schools to ban web-site student photos, but not all educators agree

Responding to what they call a dramatic increase in the number of pedophile cases perpetrated though school web sites and the internet, the United States Attorney’s Office of Maryland and the Baltimore FBI Division have teamed up to make parents and teachers aware of the dangers children face on the internet.

“We recognize that [internet-related crime against children] is a big problem, and it’s going to get bigger—not because there’s more pedophiles out there, but because more children have access to the internet,” said Special Agent Peter Gulotta, media representative for the FBI Baltimore Division.

Gulotta works with an undercover FBI operation, called Innocent Images, in which officers seek out pedophiles by engaging in chat room conversations where pedophiles might be lurking. Pretending to be a young girl or boy, the officers look for people who transmit pornographic images to children and those who actually travel to meet and have sex with children so they can make an arrest.

In 1999, Innocent Images handled 1,500 cases, up from 700 in 1998. The program began in 1995, and now 15 of the 58 FBI offices across the country operate Innocent Images task forces.

To curb the frequency of these crimes, volunteers from the state attorney’s office, the FBI’s Innocent Images task force in Baltimore, and local police have been making presentations at teacher staff meetings and to PTA groups at elementary and middle schools throughout Maryland.

Drawing on real-life incidences, they tell educators and parents about cases in which children using the internet were lured into meeting attackers face to face.

“We use our cases as examples because they are pretty scary,” said Marcia Murphy, assistant to the attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Maryland. “Parents had no idea what was happening to their kids.”

Pedophiles using the internet often initiate contact with their victims through online chat rooms, according to the FBI, and they later visit school web sites looking for more information about the children they’ve encountered. Pedophiles who find pictures and information on school web pages can then show up at the school looking for specific children, federal agents said.

“Some things seem very innocent, like putting up kids’ pictures on a school web page—but we don’t recommend that at all,” Murphy said. “A lot of pedophiles go to school web sites. We have had people in our prosecutions who have gone to the child’s school because of the web site.”

According to a recent report, “Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth,” funded by the U.S. Congress through a grant to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, approximately one in five youths between the ages of 10 and 17 were sexually solicited or approached over the internet last year.

Only 17 percent of youths and 10 percent of parents could name a specific authority—such as the FBI, CyberTipline, or an internet service provider—to which they could report an offense.

Marilyn Barber, technology specialist at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Md., invited the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI to give their internet safety presentation to teachers and parents at her school.

“It was very frank and to the point about internet safety,” Barber said. “They were really thorough and they sited real cases. It was a reality check.”

Debate over students’ photos

But some educators think the FBI’s presentation is an overreaction.

The officials from the state attorney’s office and the FBI recommend that schools do not publish any student photographs or personal information, including names or even activity schedules, on school web sites. If a school does publish a student photo, the FBI says it should be a distant group photo, and faces should be angled and unidentifiable.

Many schools that add student photos to their web sites see nothing wrong with doing so. At Andrews Independent School District in Texas, teachers like to publish photos of students participating in theme days, or special accomplishments such as the valedictory, although the district doesn’t use full names on its site.

“Our school policy is no last names, but what kind of recognition is that? Blair L. or David P. To me, that is not enough. I think kids do much better when acknowledged for their accomplishments,” said Annell Cribbs, the district’s web master.

“Students are motivated by seeing themselves on the web—that translates into a lot of excitement in the classroom,” agrees Mark Johnson, co-founder of HighWired.com, an internet company that hosts web pages and newspapers for high schools and, more recently, junior high schools.

“We encourage the use of photographs, particularly group shots. We are wary of single, individual photos,” Johnson said.

Many of HighWired’s clients post student pictures on their web pages without thinking of it as dangerous, he said, although the students are all older than 13.

“We would be against schools taking pictures off school web sites,” Johnson said, since the pictures of student athletes and drama clubs are highly motivating to students. “We think that might be taking it a tad too far.”

Like Andrews ISD, many school districts give parents the choice by requiring legal guardians to sign a release form before they publish a student’s picture on the web or in a newspaper.

Bob Moore, instruction technology director for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, said the policy should vary from community to community, depending on a community’s residents and their experiences.

“If you’re in a community that had a problem, that would certainly affect the approach you take,” said Moore, who noted that law enforcement officials “tend to err on the conservative, cautious side.”

Rob Schleck, director of technology for Milwaukee Public Schools, said he can understand the perspective of government law, and he acknowledges that pedophiles and stalkers do exist.

“If it means a child getting abducted from school, than it’s not worth the risk, even if it’s one kid in two million,” Schleck said. “You have to balance reality with the risk, I guess.”

He also points out that school web pages could focus more on school work and student achievements instead. “You can certainly do great web pages without featuring pictures of students,” Schleck said. “It’s just unfortunate that we have to worry about stuff like this.”

Some of the FBI’s advice includes suggestions that no educator would argue with. Kids should not be left unsupervised with computers. Internet activities should be structured, and teachers should preview web pages before letting students access them.

“We tell children that they never, ever should give out personal information to people they don’t know,” Gulotta said. “That includes phone number, address, where you go to school, what grade you’re in.”

Supporters of the FBI’s presentations say that kids need to hear the horror stories of these internet crimes, because it’s the most effective way to get the message across to them.

“Young people think they are invincible. They don’t see the danger. They don’t see the death,” Gulotta said. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with out there, and kids have to understand that.”

Links:

Federal Bureau of Investigation
http://www.fbi.gov

Buck Lodge Middle School
http://www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us/~blms

International Center for Missing or Exploited Children
http://www.missingkids.com

Andrews Independent School District
http://andrews.esc18.net

Blue Valley School District
http://www.bluevalleyk12.org

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Nebraska board approves school safety plan

The Nebraska Board of Education put its final seal of approval May 12 on a school safety measure that now requires all Nebraska schools to have a safety team and an independently audited safety plan.

The eight-member board unanimously approved the measure during its monthly meeting in Lincoln.

For months, controversy has swirled around a provision that requires the safety plan be analyzed by people outside the school system. Many school superintendents have said such a measure is not needed and that it would hinder efficiency and hike costs.

“As written, I can get my local barber to walk through and say: ‘Looks good to me,'” said Jerry Sellentin, executive director of Nebraska Council of School Administrators.

The state teacher’s union backs the provision.

Jay Sears with the Nebraska State Education Association said that while schools remain relatively safe, a plan to help ensure student safety is worth a few extra dollars.

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Nevada urges mandatory reporting of school violence

Nevada schools would have to report violent crimes that occur on campus to the main police agency in their communities, under a proposal adopted by the state Commission on School Safety and Juvenile Violence.

“The problem is, crimes are not getting reported to us,” said Henderson Police Chief Tom Burns, a member of the commission.

Commissioners decided after a day-long hearing May 24 to prepare a bill that would mandate school police or administrators contact local police for assistance in handling violent crimes.

The commission was created by the state Legislature last year in response to the Columbine High School massacre. The May 24 meeting was the last for the commission, whose recommendations will be considered by the Legislature next year.

Phil Gervasi of the Clark County School District Police Officers Association said 10,000 crimes are committed annually on Clark County school campuses. Forty-five percent of them are felonies, he said.

He added that his police “train in the same classrooms” as the Las Vegas police and are professional officers, yet he expressed concern that the recommendation to call local police would mean his officers would be bypassed by school administrators. “They will call Metro directly,” he said.

Las Vegas police Lt. Stan Olsen said after the hearing that police are not trying to imply school officers are less than professional. “But they don’t have the same level of experience that we have,” he said. “We must preserve the crime scenes, get in on the investigation as early as possible. They have felt they could do it by themselves, and sometimes they exceeded their expertise.”

Olsen said local police do not have to respond “when one kid punches another kid and he gets a bloody noise.” But, he said, school police and administrators know the kind of incidents for which the primary police agency should be notified.

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Arborist IDs unsafe trees

An arborist’s report on the condition of trees at a Florida elementary school underscores the need for school districts to conduct regular safety inspections of their school campus grounds.

The May 25 report by Clearwater arborist Loren Westenberger identifies three hazardous trees on the parklike campus of Safety Harbor Elementary School that need to be removed—and dozens of others around the playground, walkways, and courtyard that need immediate attention.

The three trees that should be removed are severely decayed. One of those three, a chinaberry, produces a poisonous berry that can be lethal to humans, according to a horticulturalist at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension.

Westenberger inspected the campus free of charge after being asked by a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Association. He estimated the work would cost $22,965.

“They’re in bad shape,” Westenberger said. “Most of the danger is from dead wood falling in high traffic areas—walkways, playgrounds, parking areas—and on a school, it’s pretty much the whole site.”

The issue of the health of the trees came up in early May when the PTA was discussing campus beautification, said president Kathy Frid, who has a first-grade son at the school. There was concern about one tree in particular, a laurel oak near the bus driveway that has had problems with termites.

Frid said at times the tree has been swarming with termites when children are passing by.

Principal John Day said he hopes the district will replace those trees that need to come out. That includes the laurel oak with the termites and a second decaying laurel oak in the south courtyard that hangs over picnic tables. The third tree is a chinaberry, a non-native tree that Westenberger identified as high risk for structural failure.

Besides the structural integrity, the chinaberry should be removed because its berries are poisonous, said Bob Albanese, a horticulturalist at the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension. He cited a University of Florida publication that reported a young girl in India died after eating six to eight ripe chinaberries, which are about the size of a maraschino cherry, Albanese said. “It probably shouldn’t be in a school yard,” he said.

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Cleveland schools plan bigger security effort

In Cleveland’s academically troubled school district, classes soon will function within significantly beefed-up building security, the city’s schools chief said June 6.

“I would hope it sounds like this is tough,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of the Cleveland Municipal School District. “We’ve got to make certain that our environment is such that children who are there who want to learn can learn, and those children who are disruptive will be removed immediately.”

The Cleveland school district, which has struggled with poor state proficiency test performance and a high dropout rate, enrolls about 77,000 students in 122 buildings. Byrd-Bennett was hired as the district’s first CEO in 1998 after a governance change placed Mayor Michael White in control.

A Columbine-style shooting plot was broken up last October, and in January, the Cleveland Teachers Union complained about a growing number of assaults on teachers.

Asked whether the tighter security planned for the next school year might be a reaction to the Columbine shootings last year in Colorado, Byrd-Bennett said: “No. Rather than a reaction, it’s a proactive step. We recognize that public schools across the country, as well as here in Cleveland, are places where we are seeing violence playing itself out more frequently that it should.”

The mayor’s appointed school board will be asked to approve a $21.5 million security budget, up about $8.1 million from the 1999-2000 school year. The money will be used to hire 22 armed Cleveland police officers to work in schools along with a larger school security force.

“The addition of the police I think is marvelous, long overdue, and in today’s world, I think, necessary,” said Richard DeColibus, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union. “There are still some problems out there with some less than functional principals who can’t control their own buildings.”

The plan is focused on middle schools, grades six through eight, where disruptions are most frequent, Byrd-Bennett said.

About 650 students, who should be too old for middle school but who cause problems there, will be assigned to one of two new optional schools, where they will receive the special attention and school structure they need, she said.

The security plan also involves a stricter expulsion policy.

“You also have children who are just not going to fit into the system, who are rebellious and who are causing physical harm, threatening teachers, other kids, and school personnel. That cannot and will not be tolerated,” Byrd-Bennett said.

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