As Virginia’s schools prepare to incorporate internet safety lessons across all grade levels this fall to satisfy a landmark 2006 state law, educators are looking to schools that piloted web-safety curricula this past school year for guidance.

Each of the state’s 134 school systems is free to integrate the online safety program in its own way, and most districts have formed committees of administrators, teachers, librarians, and parents to lay the groundwork for the nation’s first internet safety requirement.

Media specialists from across the state said the lessons will vary according to grade level—but as students use the internet at school and at home, it will be critical to discuss the consequences of divulging too much personal information online, they added.

"Once [information is] on the internet, it’s not like it’s posted on a bulletin board, because you can’t take it back. … It never goes away, and we [have to] make sure they understand that," said Charlie Makela, supervisor of libraries for the Arlington County Public Schools and a former library media specialist for the Virginia Department of Education. "Students need to think about what they’re doing before they click that ‘post’ button."

Pilot programs were launched in several Virginia districts during the 2007-08 school year, and officials said students—even children in second and third grades—proved to be web savvy but lacked the basics of identity protection online.

In the 18,000-student Arlington County school system, the pilot program focused on third-grade classes.

"We had a simple question [for students]: Could your information be used to track you down?" Makela said.

Although many third graders could identify unauthentic eMail messages, Makela said safety tips would be crucial for a generation that spends hours on the web every day.

State school officials said they would not mandate a certain curriculum, but Tammy McGraw, the state’s director of educational technology, said many districts would use animated features with pop-culture icons—such as the cartoon Pokemon—to grab elementary students’ attention.

Virginia’s youngest students will learn the basics of online safety, she said. When chatting online or creating a profile on a social-networking web site, students will be urged not to submit their last names, addresses, phone numbers, or any other information that could help an online predator track them in the community.

"It is out moral and ethical responsibility to make sure our children are protected," McGraw said, adding that the mandate is not meant to scare students away from using the web regularly. "We want them to understand that the ‘net is a very important and valuable tool for them."

State and county-level officials said internet safety would be taught at all grade levels but would be emphasized in the fifth and eighth grades in particular. In fifth grade, they explained, students are on the verge of entering a larger, more social community of friends and classmates in middle school—and as eighth graders preparing for high school, a firm understanding of safe online practices could help students identify predators and help avoid cyber bullying.

In the Rockingham County school system, a district with 22 schools and about 11,000 students, online safety lessons will become part of English, physical education, language arts, and a host of other classes from kindergarten through high school.

For example, in high school English classes, teachers will discuss passwords, online communities, and web-based research. Those lessons will use Web Wise Kids, a popular option among many Virginia districts, and teachers will address online fraud and urban legends using www.snopes.com, a web site that documents popular myths about politics, sports, religion, the internet, and a host of other topics.

In sociology and health classes, Rockingham teachers will show videos demonstrating acceptable verbal and online communication, stressing that internet users cannot take back what they’ve said. In government classes, students will learn about cyber bullying at all age levels. Sociology students will write research papers after reading a study from the American Psychological Association, titled "Online Predators and Their Victims" and discussing it in class.

Joe Showker, an instructional technology resource teacher for the Rockingham district, said it would be difficult—if not impossible—for teachers and parents to monitor children’s online usage, so integrating web safety advice into every subject area will help kids protect themselves.

"The challenges involve the speed at which everything is moving on the internet," Showker said in an eMail message to eSchool News. "It’s hard for parents and teachers to keep up, [because] the social web is a dynamic growing experience for all who use it."

Many Virginia school systems, including Arlington County, will use curriculum from i-SAFE , a nonprofit organization founded in 1998 and considered one of the foremost resources in online safety education. A bevy of educators—including librarians and health teachers—will take a series of i-SAFE courses to become certified by the organization before students return to the classroom in August, said James Carroll, head of information services for Arlington County schools.

Carroll, who helped form the committee that determined which curriculum should be included in Arlington County’s online safety courses, said the school system will host a handful of internet safety workshops for parents this summer and next academic year. He said parents will learn to keep the family computer in a centralized location, among other tips.

Judi Westberg Warren, president of the nonprofit Web Wise Kids, said educators should be cautious not to discourage students from using the web.

"We don’t want them to be scared off the internet," she said. "[But] it’s an absolute necessity that kids become more and more aware [of online predators]."

Westberg Warren and Virginia school officials said Virginia’s web safety lessons could help other states mold similar policies as lawmakers propose online safety mandates elsewhere in the United States.

"I travel everywhere, and people are watching," Westberg Warren said.

"We have laid the tracks," said Lan Nugent, assistant superintendent for technology at the Virginia Department of Education. "There is no perfect solution, but education is the answer, so students know what dangers are out there."

Links:

Virginia web safety guidelines

Rockingham County School District web safety guidelines