The federal government is investing more than $3 million in a new online safety program meant to empower children with the skills to sidestep dangerous, sometimes deadly internet predators.

The program, called “The i-Safe Safe School Education Initiative and Outreach Campaign” and developed by the nonprofit i-Safe America Inc., is a combination of safety-oriented lessons and community-based outreach activities centered on teaching safe, effective internet use.

Sponsored by two Congressional appropriations totaling $3.554 million, the program will be funded by the Child Protective Division of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), part of the U.S. Department of Justice (JD).

The grant marks the first of its kind issued and supported through the OJJDP, said Teri Schroeder, the founder and CEO of i-Safe America, who wrote the proposal. “Congress said now is the time, because crimes against youth have escalated to such an epidemic,” she said. “Congress really felt it needed to step in.”

The award was made just a few months after the May 17 murder of a 13-year-old Connecticut girl, who authorities believe met her killer in cyberspace.

Christina Long was strangled to death, allegedly during a sexual rendezvous with 25-year-old Saul Dos Reis. Police claim Dos Reis used the internet to entice Long into a clandestine meeting, which ended with the child’s murder in a McDonald’s parking lot in Danbury, Conn.

Her story has since become a national testament to the violence committed by online predators who lure their young prey under the anonymous cover of internet chat rooms and eMail messages.

But the Connecticut case is just one in a growing roster of violent and malicious crimes perpetrated by online criminals on youthful targets—a problem i-Safe says schools and communities are in a position to do something about.

According to Schroeder, the program—which will roll out in 25 states by February 2003—is built on a unique model that encourages involvement at every level of the community, from classroom curricula and parental participation to public functions supported by local business leaders and in-school activities conducted by law enforcement.

On the curriculum side, students must complete five lessons—all tacked to a different notion of online safety. Although the program is just getting under way, i-Safe expects each lesson will be delivered through a variety of interactive channels, including video lessons, webcasts, group discussions, teacher-led activities, and worksheets about how to stay safe online.

For instance, the first lesson teaches youth how to recognize red flags indicating possible computer viruses and to protect one’s machine against unwanted, often persistent intruders.

The second stage asks children to understand the rules and consequences of cyberspace. The curriculum explains that dialogue transmitted online is as tangible as a conversation between teacher and student in the classroom.

Third, students are taught to spot cyber predators by identifying the common approaches used in their schemes. According to Schroeder, the curriculum focuses on how to avoid inappropriate situations, such as entering chat rooms where one user has logged on several times under a number of aliases.

The fourth lesson includes law enforcement in the process. At this stage, local authorities are invited into the classroom to help illustrate how missteps in cyberspace can have real-life consequences. For instance, an FBI official might be invited to a school to talk about a process known as “grooming.”

According to Schroeder, “grooming” is the slang term for the method savvy predators use to select, monitor, and pin down their child victims across the internet. Often predators keep meticulous files of personal information about potential targets, including everything form a child’s hair color to home town and birthday, she said.

Once a few pieces of information have been collected successfully, making a positive ID from a supposedly anonymous online encounter is easy, Schroeder warned. That’s why it’s important to teach children what details are considered personally identifiable information and why it’s important not to give that information away online.

The final lesson in the program deals with another issue in the online safety debate: plagiarism and copyright infringement. “It’s easy to steal from the internet,” Schroeder said. With i-Safe, students learn how to use the materials that are available online appropriately.

Schroeder claims there is not enough communication between students and their parents—or parents and the community—about what acceptable online practices should be. That’s why the i-Safe program provides for activities that transfer the burden of teaching online safety beyond classroom walls and into the community.

According to the organization, its Outreach/Youth Empowerment Campaign will sponsor community-based events, including public assemblies, parent-oriented internet awareness sessions, and public service announcements conducted by famous role models from professional sports and movies. The goal will be to encourage dialogue and demonstrate the need to discuss inappropriate advances as they are encountered online with those who can help.

“It is important that the community embrace this,” Schroeder said. “It brings the issue of accountability full circle.”

i-Safe isn’t the only program promising to help keep students safe in cyberspace. The Stay Safe Online program, sponsored by the National Cyber Security Alliance, uses curriculum from the CyberSmart School program to teach a set of skills called SMART—otherwise known as safety, manners, advertising, research, and technology. The program contains a full range of lessons for children, as well as tutorial videos for teachers about how to merge the exercises into existing curricula. eSchool News reported on that initiative May 22.

NetDay’s Cyber Security Kit for schools is another resource that has evolved out of increasing national concerns over cyber safety. The fully online toolkit provides links, news, stories, and reports for educators, administrators, and other stakeholders about how to avoid many of dangers that lurk online.

Links:

i-Safe America Inc.
http://www.isafe.org

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org

Cyber Security Kit
http://www.netday.org/cyber_security_kit.htm

Stay Safe Online Program
http://www.staysafeonline.info