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Schools step up web-safety instruction

Web-safety education experts say they have noticed an increase in program implementation.
Web-safety education experts say they have noticed an increase in program implementation.

As part of a new federal mandate that requires schools to teach internet safety to obtain e-Rate funding, schools are reaching out to internet safety awareness groups to establish programs that will educate both teachers and students about secure and proper online behavior.

When the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act was passed last fall, it established an Online Safety and Technology Working Group that would evaluate online safety-education efforts. The law also requires schools receiving federal ed-tech funding to teach students about internet safety.

Although the law was scheduled to take effect this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not yet issued any regulations to implement the legislation.

Currently, the FCC is working on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning the requirements in the act, according to a source who is familiar with the process. After that notice is issued, there will be a comment period for the public to respond. Once the comment period has closed and comments have been reviewed, the FCC will issue an order containing information about any new requirements or rule changes for e-Rate program participants.

A spokesman for the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), the agency that administers the e-Rate, said USAC will not add any new e-Rate requirements until a formal FCC order has been issued.

Still, many schools aren’t waiting and are taking a proactive approach instead.

Judi Westberg Warren, president of the internet safety-education group Web Wise Kids, said the organization has seen an increased number of schools reaching out to Web Wise Kids for guidance and information on how to properly educate students and teachers on responsible internet use.

Warren attributes that increase to a combination of the new internet-safety mandate and a general increased awareness surrounding the issue.

“There are no specific federal requirements yet, but we have an awful lot of schools and teachers asking about internet-safety programs–it’s really on the increase,” Warren said.

“We’re really excited about that, because it means that schools are concerned about this issue and want to find good methods to educate their kids,” she added.

Web Wise Kids uses computer games to educate students about safe and responsible online behavior, and Warren said using a format that children can relate to is an important step in making sure lessons are taken seriously.

Teachers are not exempt from online-safety education simply because they are adults, Warren noted.

“It is critically important to educate the educator, so we do internet training for educators and a full-day class for them to be educated not only for our program, but on the issue,” she said.

Too often, educators are asked to implement internet-safety education programs before they are familiar with the topic themselves, Warren added. And parents, too, are important.

“Parents are a critical piece in educating their kids in internet-safety awareness,” Warren said. “It needs to be a cooperative effort–parents, schools, communities, and kids.”

For internet-safety education to be effective, courses should be repeated every year, Warren said, using varying approaches if necessary.

“The message needs to be reinforced and communicated to different learning styles in different ways,” she said.

Warren said Web Wise Kids makes an effort to stay on top of emerging technologies and the safety threats they can pose.

“The reason we were ready last spring with a game that addressed the sexting issue was because in Asia they were already having problems with it–[and] we were ready for it here,” she said.

Mobile technologies that offer internet access, including cell phones, present an additional challenge, she said, because children can be exposed to internet dangers away from parental or educational supervision.

“Mobile devices are where everything is going to be, so educating the kids to make wise choices is really the only way to help them manage their future with technology,” Warren said. “We need to make kids their own protectors.”

Many schools already are working to create well-supported programs.

All Wisconsin elementary and middle schools have received an anti-bullying curriculum free of charge, with the $15,000 cost picked up by WEA Trust, a nonprofit group health insurer that covers many state school employees.

The program was spurred by the murder of a high school principal by a 15-year-old student, who later said he was relentlessly teased at school–and he brought the guns that day to make the principal and teachers listen to his problems.

A previous version of the curriculum, released in 2007, was used by 250 of the state’s 426 school districts, according to state Superintendent Tony Evers. He said he hopes all districts will use the new edition, which includes sections on how to deal with bullying over the internet.

According to a survey conducted this year by the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), 22.5 percent of high school students said they had been bullied at school within the past 12 months.

Despite the increased focus on cyber bullying, Wisconsin is one of only six states that doesn’t have a state law banning bullying.

A special committee of state lawmakers, school district employees, police, and others who studied school safety last year recommended that a law be enacted requiring schools to either follow state anti-bullying guidelines or come up with their own.

A bill to do that awaits debate in the state Senate. The measure’s sponsor, Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, said he expects it to pass the Legislature either later this year or next. Wide use of the new curriculum could meet the goals of the bill without there being a new law in place, Evers said. Nonetheless, DPI still supports requiring schools to have an anti-bullying policy, he said.

Both the curriculum and the law are needed, agreed Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. It will be difficult for teachers already pressed for time to work anti-bullying education into the curriculum, she acknowledged, adding that everything that can be done to prevent bullying needs to be pursued.

On Sept. 1, Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, in partnership with the Entertainment Software Association Foundation and Web Wise Kids, launched a statewide program that uses video games to help students, teachers, and parents better understand safe use of the internet and other technology.

“The devices that kids love, from smart phones to computers, are also being used to subject them to cyber bullying, scams, and online stalkers,” McKenna said. “This program deploys a technology that’s very familiar to kids–video games–to teach important lessons about staying safe in cyberspace.”

More than 70 educators will learn how to use the Web Wise Kids program, which will be used in local school districts across Washington.

“The internet has become a vital tool in students’ education,” Dorn said. “But like all tools, kids need a rule book, one that helps them understand potential dangers. The Web Wise Kids program will give them valuable lessons on using the internet safely.”

The safety program includes a series of three customized video games–Missing, Mirror Image, and Air Dogs–all of which teach students how to be safe and responsible online.

The games teach kids to recognize and deal with online predators, modeling scams, cyber bullying, and other digital dangers. The games also provide warnings about the consequences of illegal downloading.


Web Wise Kids

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