School gets a lesson in online safety


On her MySpace Web page, Caitlin Boles had posted her full name, pictures of herself and comments from friends that supplied personal information to any visitors to the site.

Until a classroom lesson, Caitlin, 12, of Westminster had not realized the potential dangers on the Internet. Afterward, she removed the revealing material.

In hopes of sending a similar message, West Middle School in Westminster held an hourlong schoolwide program Friday about online safety.

"I hadn't realized how easy it was for someone to track you down," said Caitlin, a seventh-grader at West Middle. "I thought it was really beneficial."

The program was part of an effort by the administration and seventh-grade social studies teacher Rick Parker to reach out to pupils and parents and educate them about Internet safety issues.

"You take a look at what some people put online, it's scary," said Parker, who dealt with online safety and security as a supervisor for the America Online guide program. "There are kids out there putting their phone numbers on Web sites, and then [they] are surprised that people outside their town know this stuff. Some of them think they're invincible; some of them just don't realize what they're getting into."

To show how a few pieces of information can track someone online, pupils watched Tracking Teresa, an online video created by NetSmartz, an educational resource sponsored by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

In the video, a narrator demonstrates how much information can be gleaned from the online profile of a fictional girl named Teresa who is in a chat room designed for teenagers.

Teresa's profile lists the first names of herself and her brother and her e-mail address. But entering her e-mail address into a search engine pulls up Teresa's message board postings, on which she revealed her phone number, when she is at home and the name of another family member.

From there, a person could use other Internet searches to find her full name, address, directions to her home and where she may attend school.

"You get to see how a kid online is taking what seems to be sensible precautions, [but] accidentally gives up a little too much about themselves," Parker said. "I've never shown this video to a group of adults who did not find it somewhat shocking."

After the video, pupils took a quiz and discussed the answers, including emphasis on why some answers might be dangerous.

West Middle also sent letters to parents, set up a Web site with educational links, provided a handbook and, in coordination with the parent-teacher organization, held a parents meeting with a police presentation.

"It's a very positive thing when, as a school system, we can help to educate our kids and our parents to help keep everybody a little safer," said Principal Tom Hill.

To county schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, the Internet can be beneficial and frightening.

"There are a lot of bad things on there," Ecker said. "If it's used properly it's great, but unfortunately some students get on these sites, get chatting and get carried away. It's just scary."

Parker said he hopes to hold other online safety classes for pupils. "It's a big and complex issue," he said. "We wanted to make sure that our first lesson would be something where we'd get as much information and impact as we can and deliver it to every student in the school."

For more information, Parker recommends, and

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