Schools playing it smart on kids and the Internet


April 06, 1997|By Norris West

THE INTERNET is, at once, fascinating and frightening.

Punch up a web site and users can find stuff on just about any subject, including the latest news on comet Hale-Bopp, local and state legislation, movie listings or bus schedules in Atlanta.

On the other hand, they can find trash that once was confined to adult book stores. And there's danger -- predators have found victims on line and "Heaven's Gate" cultists found suicide through the web.

It is no wonder that the Howard County school board, none of whose members fits the computer-geek profile, is squeamish about the Internet. Members of the local school board, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, are trying to answer the difficult question on how much freedom children should have when using online services.

This is a question families like my own had to answer at home.

Our family got connected three years ago through America Online and last year graduated to another (cheaper) provider of Internet service. The amount of stuff online still amazes me. Newspapers pop up from from around the world. (Ex-Baltimore residents, not to mention current residents, can touch base with home by connecting to

There are sites for discussion groups, tax forms, universities, college and professional sports teams, literature (Shakespeare's complete works are online; I haven't checked on whether Cliff's Notes are) and just about everything else. Whatever background information you need, the web probably has it, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy. Only Theodore Kaczynski would find the info superhighway useless.

The Net at home

The question, though, is how much access we should grant our three middle-school children.

Already, they have learned to make friends online and to communicate with schoolmates via the written word. E-mail is somewhat refreshing, coming in a time when we thought personal letter-writing was a lost art. Our computer-age children go online to find information for school projects -- name the subject, they've done it -- and the Net has not failed them yet. They also get the latest news on video games.

Still, I'm not comfortable with giving them unfettered access to the Net. E-mail can be a wonderful device when two 11-year-olds are chatting online.

But this faceless medium can conceal true identities. When meeting a stranger online, can an 11-year-old be certain that his World Wide Web buddy who describes himself as being the same age is telling the truth? Perhaps 99 percent of the time, he is. But there are exceptions.

My initial instructions to my children were to never, under any circumstances, reveal their full names, address or telephone number to strangers on the Net.

They also know that our Internet account is not their private mail service. We reserve the right to read any messages sent or received. Overprotective? Maybe. A violation of privacy? Not in this case. We trust them, but we can't possibly trust every stranger cruising the superhighway.

E-mail's dangers

E-mail, with its anonymity, strikes me as the most dangerous of Internet tools. That is why I applaud Howard schools administrators for their Internet policy. Richard Weisenhoff, who oversees educational technologies for Howard schools, presented the plan to the school board last June. He satisfied my concern when he told board members last June that students would not have e-mail.

Unfortunately, it appears that not everyone agrees.

"I should say I am getting pressure from schools to give students e-mail accounts, so that they may correspond with students from around the world," Mr. Weisenhoff told the board in another presentation last month. "My response has been that we will not allow students personal accounts as long as they cannot be monitored. I do not want the system placed in a situation where students send e-mail to anyone on any topic under the system's auspices."

Any school pushing for student e-mail accounts would expose the entire cyberspace universe to their pupils. Supervision would be impossible. The administration is taking the appropriate step, providing e-mail for teachers. This enables parents to communicate with staff and allows staffers to reach one another online.

In last month's presentation, Mr. Weisenhoff put the school board at ease when he agreed to deny unsupervised use of the Internet to middle school children. Only high school students who have signed permission slips from parents will be able to use the World Wide Web, Gopher and FTP without a teacher present.

Unfortunately, some students already have misused the Internet. It is unfortunate for them because in some cases they will not be able to use this increasingly important tool in class again. One penalty for misuse, which includes visiting improper sites, is revoking Internet "driver's licenses."

Howard schools have adopted a policy not too different from my own. We're both proceeding with due caution on the superhighway.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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