Virginia has enacted a law requiring public and private schools in the state to provide students with web-safety instruction and warn them about internet predators.

Introduced by Del. William H. Fralin Jr., R-Roanoke, the bill was signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Timothy Kaine, and will take effect July 1.

The law requires the Virginia State Department of Education to issue guidelines to schools for integrating internet safety into their regular instruction and expands upon an existing code first established for Virginia schools in 1999 for acceptable-internet-use policies and practices.

The latest version of the law adds a requirement that internet-use policies developed by superintendents include a component on internet safety for students to be integrated into the district’s instructional program.

The earlier legislation required regional school superintendents to provide the state with their districts’ policies regarding the use of district computer equipment and communications services for sending, receiving, viewing, or downloading illegal material. The policies were to include detailed plans to prevent access by students to material that school leaders deemed harmful to juveniles; the choice of a filtering technology for the district’s computers to block obscene materials; and an outline of appropriate measures to be taken against persons who violate the policy.

“We teach our kids not to talk to strangers,” Fralin said in an interview with the Washington Post. “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.”

Although children often encounter online dangers at home, not in school, Fralin told the Post, schools have a responsibility to ensure students know these dangers exist–and that they can be avoided.

“In some cases, the parents are more technologically challenged than their kids are,” he told the newspaper. “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.”

The law comes as concerns about online safety have heightened nationwide. Advocates of online safety contend the rising popularity of social networking web sites such as MySpace.com and other sites that allow internet users to post photographs and share personal information online have become popular hangouts for online predators looking to strike up relationships with unsuspecting school-aged children.

Concerned about the threat of online predators, MySpace, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, recently hired a former federal prosecutor to act as its first chief security officer and said it plans to start a series of public service announcements that will warn children to be wary of strangers who approach them online.

Now that the amended law has been passed, a spokesman for Virginia’s education department said school officials are taking the next steps.

“Currently we are looking at our acceptable use policy to see where we are with the information we provide already to students, to determine what [steps we need to take to] carry out this legislation,” said Charles Pyle, director of communications for the department. “As we move forward, we will look at where we are. There will be a process where a draft will be developed to follow the guidelines drafted in legislation. That draft will be created and reviewed.”

Pyle said the department views the addition to the existing code as “a positive step” in continuing efforts to protect children from harmful internet content and online predators.

“Everyone is aware of the dangers that are out there, and the attractiveness of the internet to young people,” Pyle said. “This is an area where we have a lot of concern, and we are eager to do everything we can to enhance the safety of our young people.”

Nancy Willard, executive director for the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, a nonprofit established to provide outreach services to address safe internet use, endorsed the Virginia program, sharing her hopes for what such a program might look like, and addressing what she sees as a dearth of well-designed programs for internet safety and use among teens.

“The most important thing that I think educators need to pay attention to regarding internet safety is that the internet safety instruction that is currently available has not been developed in conjunction with professionals who understand youth risk,” Willard said. “The majority of the instruction provides relatively simplistic rules, such as ‘don’t provide personal information online,’ and frequently involves scare tactics.”

But, she said, schools need to do more.

“It is really necessary to shift to a more comprehensive approach to providing this instruction, grounded in understanding of youth decision making and risky behavior, so that we can provide knowledge of dangers and risks…that could be applied in different situations, as well as addressing the values and standards that will influence their decision-making around safe and responsible choice.”

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for the Virginia Governor’s office, praised the law’s passage.

“Protecting children while they’re online is in everybody’s interest,” Hall said. “If we can do that in a more organized and coherent way, that would be a great benefit not only to the youngsters, but provides some peace of mind to the parents as well.”

But Parry Aftab, a leading internet safety expert and cyber-security lawyer, said the law will have its desired effect only if the legislature provides the funding necessary for schools to build and deploy these programs effectively.

“All schools already want to deal with these issues of internet security,” said Aftab. “I don’t think legislators should be telling educators what to do. I think educators know what to do when it comes to education…I think it would have been a better move to come up with an online resource for such a program,” she explained, “and if you’re going to mandate it, then you definitely need to fund it.”

The governor’s office said it’s too early yet to tell what the fiscal impact of the law on schools will be.

Links:

Virginia General Assembly
http://legis.state.va.us/

Gov. Tim Kaine
http://www.governor.virginia.gov/Contact.cfm

Virginia Department of Education
http://www.pen.k12.va.us/

The Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use
http://responsiblenetizen.org/