Teens are sending nude photos via cell phone

When school officials in Santa Fe, Texas, confiscated dozens of student cell phones last month as they searched for nude photos of two junior high school girls that were forwarded to numerous students, the incident sparked national attention. But shocking as that incident was, school safety experts say it was merely part of a larger trend that has many parents and educators concerned.

Passing notes in study hall or getting your best friend to ask a boy if he likes you seems quaint by comparison: Nowadays, teenagers nationwide are snapping naked pictures of themselves on their cell phones and sending them to their boyfriends and girlfriends.

Many of these pictures are falling into the wrong hands—or worse, everyone’s hands—via the internet and are leading to criminal charges. Meanwhile, some parents are aghast.

"I just don’t understand why kids would do a stupid thing like that," said Rochelle Hoins of Castle Rock, Colo., where 18 students in her twin sons’ middle school sent around nude pictures of themselves last year. "We did dumb things when we were kids, but not like that," said Hoins, whose sons were not involved.

Similar cases have been reported in Alabama, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah.

"It used to be that kids would make mistakes, and it was local and singular and everyone knew it was part of growing up," said Catherine Davis, a PTA co-president in Westport, Conn., who had a frank talk with her two sons after several students’ nude self-portraits recently spread through the wealthy New York City bedroom community. "Now, a stupid adolescent mistake can take on major implications and go on their record for the rest of their lives."

School administrators in Santa Fe, Texas, confiscated dozens of cell phones from students in May after nude photos of two junior high girls began circulating. The girls had sent the photos to their boyfriends, who forwarded them to others, officials said. (See "Student cell phones seized over nude photos.")

In La Crosse, Wis., a 17-year-old boy recently was charged with child pornography, sexual exploitation of a child, and defamation for allegedly posting nude photos of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend on his MySpace page. The girl had taken the pictures with her cell phone at her mother’s home and eMailed them to the boyfriend, authorities said.

"They were pretty graphic," said sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Yehle. "I think they just do it to impress their boyfriends. When he breaks up, he ‘vents,’ in his words, by posting them. He apparently didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. He didn’t know it was illegal."

Psychologists say the phenomenon reflects typical teenage hormones and lack of judgment, with technology multiplying the potential for mischief. It also might reflect a teenage penchant for exhibitionism, as demonstrated on MySpace and countless other web sites and blogs.

Brianna Moran, 15, who attends the same school as the girl in the La Crosse case, said she is not surprised by such behavior. "They probably think they’re hot or something. If you look at people’s MySpace [pages], all the pictures are slutty," she said.

In suburban Syracuse, N.Y., several teenage girls sent naked pictures on their phones to their boyfriends, only to learn that another boy had collected them from the web and was trying to sell a DVD of them.

Some boys are photographing themselves, too. In Utah, a 16-year-old boy was charged with a felony for sending nude photos of himself over a cell phone to several girls. And four middle school students—two boys and two girls—in Daphne, Ala., took photos of themselves on their cell phones and traded the images back and forth, authorities said.

Some nude photos have even turned up in parents’ eMail in-boxes.

The images are complicating the work of investigators whose job is to find exploited children. Authorities trying to identify youngsters in naked photos are increasingly discovering that the teens themselves took the shots, said John Shehan, a director at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Connecticut police Sgt. Jim Smith, who investigates cyber crimes and online child pornography, conducts seminars in which he warns parents about the use of cell phones to send nude pictures—and he suggests that schools should begin incorporating these warnings into their cyber safety lessons, too.

"It’s often so spur-of-the-moment that [students are] not thinking about where those images might end up," Smith said. "They might think it’s just fun and games at the time they do it, but these images can really spread like wildfire."


National Center for Missing and Exploited Children


New twist to student loans: Peer-to-peer lending

A new trend in the student loan business is capitalizing on the online social-networking phenomenon to connect students with those willing to lend them money for college.

The credit crunch has driven dozens of lenders out of the student loan market. But a number of new web sites are trying to sidestep the traditional players, facilitating loans between students and anonymous investors or even friends and family members.

The latest startup player in this so-called "peer-to-peer" student lending market, GreenNote, marked its official launch June 4.

The field is still fairly small but hoping for sharp seasonal increases. Fynanz, a competitor that matches up students anonymously with investors, said it has seen a big uptick as students start piecing together financial aid over the summer, with applications for about $180,000 in loans arriving in just the last few days.

The sites are popping up as many lenders have stopped issuing federally subsidized loans. Such loans are still available, contrary to sky-is-falling predictions—but students are having to hunt for banks or turn to the federal government itself.

Meanwhile, the credit squeeze is affecting some students as they try to find private loans, which more and more students need once they hit the ceiling on cheaper federal aid.

Peer-to-peer loans are trying to step into that private-loan market, though they likely won’t amount to more than a tiny sliver of it anytime soon.

The idea is that students can secure better terms by turning to individual investors willing to back them. Investors might get satisfaction from helping out a child, relative, or friend. And if the lender knows the borrower personally, it lessens the likelihood of late payments or default.

"I do think they have some long-term promise," said Mark Kantrowitz, who runs the web site finaid.org. "I can see something like alumni using one of these sites as a way to provide loans for current students."

Indeed, three supporters of New York University have put up $500,000 through Fynanz to be available to students there.

Web sites such as Prosper and Zopa have already tried to tap into the broader world of peer-to-peer lending, using the internet to match up people who need to borrow for a range of reasons with strangers willing to back them.

Fynanz, which debuted in March and currently operates in 16 states, called itself the first such service to target student loans. The site evaluates students for credit risk and matches them with an individual investor or investors, who bid to finance the loans.

"It’s been a very eye-opening experience as to just how many people are out there who actually want to fund students," said CC Chaman, Fynanz’s chief executive.

He said even nonprofit lending agencies have concluded that Fynanz is an effective way to get their money to students and are putting up funds.

GreenNote, the site that debuted June 4, works differently. It focuses largely on formalizing and servicing loans between people who already know each other.

Students who need a private loan and have a bad credit history, but know people willing to lend to them, might find the terms attractive. There’s no credit check and the interest rate is 6.8 percent, the same as a federal Stafford loan and better than most private loans and federal PLUS loans for parents.

GreenNote helps students conduct a "pledge drive" to raise capital. The downside is that students might not be able to borrow all they need. GreenNote doesn’t really get students access to money they don’t already have access to; it essentially organizes the transactions among family and friends, although there is a "public" profile option that allows outsiders to loan money through the site. If students can get family and friends to just give them the money—or lend it at less than 6.8 percent—that’s obviously a better deal.

There also are fees: 1 percentage point of the interest return for lenders, and 2 percent up front for borrowers. The interest isn’t tax deductible. And lenders beware: GreenNote provides no guarantees against default.

Akash Agarwal, CEO and founder of Redwood City, Calif.-based GreenNote, says many students have family and friends who are willing to subsidize their education—but only so far. They want a reasonable loan rate and a formal arrangement.

Kantrowitz, of finaid.org, cautions that fees and other factors might make such loans less appealing, but he says there is value in having an outside party service loans between acquaintances, to avoid conflicts.





House approves funding for ‘green’ schools

The U.S. House of Representatives on June 4 committed more than $20 billion over the next five years to help states build and renovate schools to make them more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.

Democrats said the "21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act" would save school districts billions of dollars in energy costs, while reducing asthma and other environmentally linked health problems. The White House threatened a veto, however, saying it’s wrong for the federal government to launch a costly new school building program.

The legislation passed 250-164 and now must be considered by the Senate.

The measure approves $6.4 billion for the 2009 budget year and similar sums in subsequent years to help school districts modernize facilities to improve the learning climate, promote student and teacher health, and make schools more energy efficient.

Projects would have to meet one of three widely recognized standards for building construction materials and energy sources: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, Energy Star, or Collaborative For High Performance Schools. Requirements for meeting the green standards would be phased in, but by 2013, 90 percent of the funds would have to be used for green projects.

Democratic supporters cited studies that a green school uses 35 percent less energy than a conventional school, reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, uses 30 percent less water, and has better lighting and temperature controls that encourage student achievement.

The legislation, said House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., will "not only save them energy, not only will make the facilities safer, cleaner, and better for the learning environment these children need–it will also dramatically change the cost of running a school district."

But Republicans, and the White House, saw the bill as a federal intrusion into education matters normally under the jurisdiction of states and local governments.

"The Democrats’ massive $20 billion ‘green scheme’ would place faceless Washington bureaucrats in charge of priorities historically and best handled by states and local school districts," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. Other Republicans warned it would siphon off funds from federal programs for poor or disabled students.

The bill "would create an inappropriate and costly new federal role in modernizing and renovating public schools," the White House said in issuing its veto threat.

The White House also objected to a funding formula linking amounts that a state receives to Title I, the federal program for schools receiving aid for low-income students. No school under the formula would receive less than $5,000.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., also approves federal funding of $100 million a year for five years for public schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The bill is H.R. 3021.


House Education and Labor Committee


Pennsylvania lawmaker pushes cyber-school reform bill

A Lehigh County, Pa., lawmaker on June 3 vowed to push legislation that she said would provide greater accountability for the state’s cyber charter schools and save taxpayers millions of dollars, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. Republican Rep. Karen Beyer’s bill would set a lower rate for school districts to reimburse cyber charter schools. The savings for Pittsburgh Public Schools would be $2.3 million a year, she said. An analysis of the legislation by the House Education Committee said it would limit fund balances of charter schools and allow the state Department of Education to issue regulations to ensure that students of cyber charter schools "are receiving appropriate hours of education" and enforce truancy for students. About 64,000 Pennsylvania students attend charter schools, with some 23,000 of those attending cyber charter schools, according to Tim Daniels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools. Claiming that charter schools are as accountable as traditional public schools, Daniels said, "There is no consensus … among the people who vote to have this passed." He added that Beyer’s bill is "really limiting the choice of Pennsylvania families and students."

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Utah college praised for its new energy-efficient library

Utah Valley State College’s new energy-efficient library is the first building in the state to be constructed under Utah’s High Performance Building program, the Deseret Morning News reports. "We’re making a bit of history here," said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., speaking to a group of about 50 dignitaries on the fourth floor of the school’s yet-to-open Digital Learning Center. The governor set a goal in May 2006 for the state to increase energy proficiency 20 percent by 2015. Huntsman said he is "honored and delighted" that UVSC’s new library is "consistent in keeping with the theme that we are trying to create for the state in respect to energy efficiency." The library is 65 percent to 90 percent more energy-efficient than buildings constructed to former ordinary building codes and will save $100,000 per year in utility costs, he said. The building includes a myriad of energy-saving aspects, including high-performance glass that lets in light but cuts out heat; motion sensors that shut off lights if the space is unoccupied; a process that uses excess heat to warm other areas of the building; and panels that block light in the summer but allow for warming light in the winter. Said UVSC President William A. Sederburg: "We are truly meeting the needs of the 21st century."

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XO laptop: A $100 distraction device?

An article in Slate magazine raises the question: Will kids use the One Laptop Per Child initiative’s subsidized low-cost computing devices to prepare for the demands of the 21st-century job market–or do computers just serve as a 21st-century substitute for that more venerable time-waster, the television? New research by economists Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches might provide an answer, the author claims, and it’s not a positive one: For many kids, computers are indeed more of a distraction than a learning opportunity. The two researchers surveyed households that applied to Euro 200, a voucher distribution program in Romania designed to help poor households defray the cost of buying a computer for their children. It turns out that kids in households lucky enough to get computer vouchers spent a lot less time watching TV–but that’s where the good news ends. "Vouchered" kids also spent less time doing homework, got lower grades, and reported lower educational aspirations than the "unvouchered" kids…

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Animal-rights groups push for virtual dissection

Animal-rights organizations are using software donations and other outreach efforts to spur interest in the use of "virtual dissection" tools among schools–adding a new chapter in the debate over whether these tools offer a viable option for teaching biology.

It’s not just concern for the squeamish biology students who wince at the feel and the smell of cutting into a formaldehyde-soaked animal that is driving the virtual-dissection trend in schools. Think about the frog, the pig, or even the rat: That’s the message that animal-rights activists in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle had in mind when they recently donated interactive software that replicates a frog dissection to nearby Wheeling Park High School.

Marilyn Grindley, a member of the Ohio County, W.Va., Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said dissecting animals "desensitizes kids. It tells them that we do not have any respect for any animal." She and others want to end the practice.

Spurred on by the SPCA and other groups, mandates in 14 states–including Virginia and Maryland–that allow biology students to opt out of dissection without jeopardizing their grades are fueling interest in virtual dissection as an alternative for teaching anatomy.

Grindley and fellow SPCA member Rebecca Goth say virtual dissection software such as The Digital Frog, the program they donated, offers an alternative to students who find dissection repulsive, and they can even save schools money.

But some educators, such as Christopher Perillo, a science teacher in Kenosha, Wis., don’t buy it. He says nothing can duplicate the smell, feel, and texture of cutting into a real frog.

"It’s not the same as the real thing," Perillo said. "To actually cut through the tissue, see how the skin layers feel, the textures, the way the organs look inside the body, I think that can’t be duplicated. It’s like trying to become a gardener without touching the dirt."

The debate over virtual dissection software has been raging in schools for some time (see "‘Digital dissection’ draws debate in schools"). But animal rights’ groups have raised it up a notch by touting software programs as a more ethical alternative to traditional dissection.

Besides the SPCA, the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS)–a Chicago-based nonprofit organization–also is dedicated to this cause. NAVS sponsors the Biology Education Advancement Program (BioLEAP), a library of state-of-the-art dissection alternatives that are available on a free loan basis to students, teachers, school boards, and others interested in advancing science education without harming animals.

Although NAVS does not produce its own software, the group does promote The Digital Frog and other programs from sources such as Dissection Works, Thieme Interactive, Ventura Educational Systems, the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and Nebraska Scientific.

"Dissection teaches students that animal life is expendable and unimportant. … Many students who have the potential to become great scientists or health-care professionals may be discouraged to pursue further studies in the sciences, because they do not wish to take part in senseless killing," says Jamie Aitchison, program associate for NAVS. "BioLEAP puts the life back in life science."

NAVS also believes there are serious health risks that go along with normal dissection. By exposing skin or allowing students to inhale fumes from hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde, traditional dissections make students susceptible to throat, lung, and nasal cancer, eye damage, asthma attacks, and bronchitis, the group says. If not disposed of properly, these potentially dangerous chemicals can cause harm to the environment as well. "Dissection is also expensive and wasteful," says Aitchison. "A comparison of the costs for each class of students using frog specimens, for example, versus an alternative that can be used repeatedly, usually demonstrates a significant cost savings by investing in non-animal alternatives."

NAVS claims that recent studies have shown the test scores of students who have used virtual dissection alternatives equal or surpass those of students who have participated in traditional dissection. 
West Virginia is not one of the 14 opt-out states for dissections. But now that biology is a required class in West Virginia, virtual dissection is becoming an attractive option to some educators there.

Patrick Durkin, science department chair at Wheeling Park High School, said the number of students enrolled in biology will increase to about 400 this fall. Before, about 150 students studied biology each year.

With a single pig costing upward of $25 and a frog around $6, the Digital Frog program has the potential to save the school some money, though not a lot. Wheeling Park spends about $1,000 a year on frogs alone, he said.

By comparison, digital dissection software can be purchased for less than $1,500 from numerous companies.

In addition to The Digital Frog, schools have plenty of software to choose from, including Froguts, developed by Froguts Inc. founders Richard Hill and David Hughes, and V-Frog, developed by Tactus Technologies.

Goth and Grindley worked through the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, which negotiated with Digital Frog International in Ontario, Canada, for the SPCA to buy The Digital Frog at a reduced price of about $500.

The committee has brokered similar deals for school systems in New York and California, said Dr. John Pippin, senior medical and research adviser for the nonprofit group that promotes alternatives to animal research.

Pippin said the move away from dissecting real animals mirrors what’s been happening on college campuses over the past 25 years. In 1982, 107 of 124 medical schools across the country used real animals to teach anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and surgery. Today, only eight of 154 accredited medical schools still do.

Wheeling Park’s Durkin said it wasn’t saving cash or sparing the lives of animals that appealed to him. With plans to phase out the use of real frogs over the next couple of years, Durkin said the program will enable students to spend more time on dissection outside of class.

Using a digital scalpel, students make cuts on an image on a full-screen video. Animations and interactions also allow students to see how the body works–from blood pumping through the heart to building joints that move.

And unlike a real dissection, mistakes can be easily corrected and steps repeated to reinforce lessons.

Only those students who go on to medical school will likely ever work with human cadavers, but Pippin said he doesn’t expect virtual software to ever replace medical schools’ use of human cadavers "unless we get to the point where cadavers are not available."

"Hands-on experience with a human being burns in your brain all the things you need to learn … but it gives you a profound respect for human life," he said. "When you kill an animal for a lab, you’re wasting a life, and that’s not a message you want students to learn."


Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

National Anti-Vivisection Society

Digital Frog International

Froguts Inc.

Tactus Technologies


Free web browser meant for autistic children

A Las Vegas software developer has created a free web browser designed specifically for use by autistic children.

John LeSieur is in the software business, so he took particular interest when computers seemed mostly useless to his 6-year-old grandson, Zackary. The boy has autism, and the whirlwind of options presented by PCs so confounded him that he threw the mouse in frustration.

LeSieur tried to find online tools that could guide autistic kids around the web, but he couldn’t find anything satisfactory. So he had one built, named it the Zac Browser For Autistic Children in honor of his grandson, and is making it available to anyone free of charge.

LeSieur’s quest is a reminder that although the web has created important communication and educational opportunities for some people with cognitive impairments, computers can also introduce new headaches for families trying to navigate the contours of disability.

The Zac Browser greatly simplifies the experience of using a computer. It seals off most web sites from view, to block violent, sexual, or otherwise adult-themed material. Instead, it presents a hand-picked slate of choices from free, public web sites, with an emphasis on educational games, music, videos, and visually entertaining images, such as a virtual aquarium.

Other programs for children already offer that “walled garden” approach to the web. But LeSieur’s browser aims to go further: It essentially takes over the computer and reduces the controls available for children such as Zackary, who finds too many choices overwhelming.

For example, the Zac Browser disables extraneous keyboard buttons such as “Print Screen” and turns off the right button on the mouse. That eliminates commands most children don’t need anyway, and it reduces the chance an autistic child will lose confidence after making a counterproductive click.

Children using the Zac Browser select activities by clicking on larger-than-normal icons, like a soccer ball for games and a stack of books for “stories.” The Zac Browser also configures the view so no advertisements or other flashing distractions appear.

“We’re trying to avoid aggressive or very dark or complicated web sites, because it’s all about self-esteem,” LeSieur said. “If they’re not under control, they will get easily frustrated.”


Comcast to test new way to manage internet jams

Comcast Corp., under fire for the way it treats subscriber internet traffic, will start tests this week to see if it can avoid traffic jams by targeting neighborhood bandwidth hogs rather than file-sharing programs, the Associated Press reports. The tests will be conducted in Chambersburg, Pa., and Warrenton, Va., starting June 5, and later this summer in Colorado Springs, Colo., a Comcast spokesman said June 3. The Federal Communications Commission is looking into complaints that the company, which has 14.1 million internet subscribers, is blocking or delaying some forms of file-sharing traffic. Consumer advocates and legal scholars say the practice amounts to Comcast deciding what works and what doesn’t on the internet. Comcast has said the practice was necessary to keep the file-sharing traffic of a minority of users from overwhelming and slowing more conventional uses of the internet, such as web surfing and eMail…

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