Monday, January 14, 2008

Arlington VA schools have plans for "Parent Academy" on Internet safety

The former (Virginia) Arlington County School Board chairman David M. Foster has a short op-ed in the Outlook Section of The Washington Post, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2008, p. B08, about County efforts to educate both public school students (middle and high schools) and parents about the bizarre risks to kids on the Internet. The story is called “On the Prowl for Online Predators” and the link is here. The title of the story certain invokes images of Chris Hansen’s recent controversial series “TCAP” on NBC Dateline (and the “Peej” vigilantism now seems to have undercut the undercover police efforts).

Arlington plans to conduct Internet safety training for all public school employees. Obviously, some of this refers to the rules, mostly common sense, for proper use of computers at work and school -- for school system business and legitimate classroom purposes only. With schools, there can be a problem about what is “legitimate.” “Approved curricula” has become a highly politicized topic because of cultural and religious variations among parents, and the pressures these put on school boards. Some material that most adults think is acceptable might not be acceptable in a school environment.

The article also mentions a “Parent Academy,” which apparently will be a series of sessions (probably evening) to help parents monitor their kids’ Internet use at home. Many experts suggest placing the “family computer” in a “public area” of the home, but as students become more advanced, many of them will need more privacy for legitimate computer use for homework assignments. Course material at schools is often reproduced in handouts that are limited in scope. Experts also suggest that kids ordinarily not be allowed to own webcams at home, as they have few legitimate uses. Proper use of software filters is essential, and when there are children of different ages, they need to be set separately for each child’s account in an age appropriate manner. AOL has recently made major upgrades to its own filters. The other major controversy is, of course, the “private” information that kids share on social networking sites in order to make “friends” and increase social popularity in what they perceive (correctly) as a competitive world. Some information (such as home street address or landline phone number) could jeopardize the security of the home and other family members, as could postings of plans for whereabouts. The recent tragic case in Missouri also highlights that kids and parents need to be skeptical about transmissions they receive; middle and high school students do not always have the judgment to know what is credible. The Internet has offered wonderful opportunities to increase the scope of information published, but some of it is unedited and amateurish.

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