Campaign Promotes Safe, Responsible Internet Use for Students

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Last May, Christina Long, 13, an eighth-grader from Danbury, Conn., secretly went to meet her Internet “boyfriend” at McDonald’s. She never came home. Long was allegedly strangled by a 25-year-old man she had met in an online chat room.

Cases like this one, which are becoming more prevalent each year, are what spurred Teri Schr'eder to take action. In 1997, Schr'eder founded i-Safe America, a nonprofit foundation based in Carlsbad, Calif., whose mission is to educate and empower America’s youth to safely and responsibly use the Internet.

Safe School Program

In recognition of i-Safe’s work, congressional leaders recently approved two earmarks for a total of $3.5 million to launch the i-Safe “Safe School Education Initiative and Outreach Campaign.” Over the next year, the program will be introduced to schools in 25 states nationwide. Now, just as law enforcement officials have presented the dangers of talking to strangers on the street corner for years, trained professionals will enter classrooms warning children to avoid talking to strangers in online forums.

The i-Safe lesson plans are divided into five parts, four are taught in the classroom and the fifth is presided over by law enforcement. The curriculum uses guidelines devised by the FBI and includes topics such as “Living as a Net Citizen in the Cyber Community,” “Personal Safety as a Cyber Citizen in the 21st Century” and “Plagiarism and the Theft of Intellectual Property.” The i-Safe Web site also offers lesson plans for teachers, educator and parent resources, a newsletter, and community implementation ideas. Schr'eder hopes that the program will be implemented in every district in every state over the next three years.

Utah schools were used for i-Safe’s pilot program two years ago. After completing the program, one of the Utah students reported suspicious behavior by their own teacher, who was subsequently removed. In September and October the program was implemented in districts in Hawaii, Alaska, New Hampshire, California, Ohio, North Dakota, Utah, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Florida and Virginia. Before the end of the year, it will be rolled out in Texas, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Delaware and Connecticut. Early next year, Michigan, South Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., will join the program.

Call to Action

Schr'eder and her i-Safe team directly train the candidate selected by each school district to be the i-Safe trainer. This district trainer then trains teachers at each school. I-Safe also has an outreach team that holds a “Call to Action” meeting where community leaders can discuss and promote online safety for children.

FBI statistics show that child pornography and the sexual exploitation of children online is the most significant problem it faces. One in five children receive sexual solicitation, materials or are approached by sexual predators online. “If you consider how many kids use the Internet, it has far surpassed the use of the telephone,” Schr'eder says. “It’s the only place where adults and children mix in the same place unsupervised.”

As part of Schr'eder’s past job — an upper-management CEO strategy officer and content provider for America Online — she sat in on around 50 online chats every week with lawyers, police officers and other officials. Children using AOL discovered these weekly chats and began seeking help from the officials on how to protect themselves from pornography and online predators.

Schr'eder began investigating and witnessed children being taken into private chat rooms — which have no way of being monitored — and then lured or seduced into meeting someone in person. “We found that many kids weren’t talking to their parents about what was happening to them, because they were afraid their computer privileges would be taken away; so they found a safe haven in us,” Schr'eder says.

She developed online content on AOL that proactively addressed Internet safety for children; from there, i-Safe was born. The foundation is now dedicated to preventing crimes like the murder of Christina Long. The victim’s friends later said they knew she spent a lot of time online with who she thought were teen-age boys. Schr'eder says that’s just the problem. “Kids don’t understand that pedophiles don’t contact them in a chat room and say, ‘Hi, I’m a pedophile.’ Pedophiles create a trust relationship and then lure the kids into dangerous situations.”

Another main danger is that most children are far more computer literate than their parents or teachers, Schr'eder says. “Many parents don’t realize that when they set up the Internet in their home, they are inviting the whole world in.”

For more information on i-Safe America, contact (760)754-5600 or visit www.isafe.org.

— Shay K. McKinley

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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