Web safety for young is program topic
For many middle and high school students the Internet is less about information and more about social networking. Parents, educators, and law enforcement officials are concerned that many children mistakenly trust the Internet's seeming anonymity.
Young people who would normally not talk to strangers or provide personal information to someone they do not know readily provide personal information in online chats, in some cases to adults masquerading as students.
In recent years Internet providers, law enforcement officials and school officials have sought to raise awareness of the issue of Internet safety.
On Wednesday Katelyn LeClerc, former Internet safety program coordinator for the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, will speak to students in the classroom and adults later in the evening as part of a day-long program on Internet safety for young people.
Ms. LeClerc's presentation is sponsored by Comcast, Martha's Vineyard Public Schools and The Martha's Vineyard Times.
MVPS superintendent James Weiss said school officials want to be proactive and help to educate students and their parents about the potential risks.
"This is a very hot topic - we want to make sure parents are aware of it and want to make students are aware when they go to these social networking sites," said Mr. Weiss.
Ms. LeClerc is well versed in the issues. While working for in the office of former Attorney General Tom Reilly her background in early childhood education and sociology proved a valuable resource in creating age-appropriate programs for kindergartners to high school students, as well as an eye-opening adults-only version for parents and educators.
Now a private consultant, she said the reality is that the Internet is a big part of every day life for young people today. Her program provides information about potential online dangers and tips on taking a proactive approach to avoid them.
This is not Ms. LeClerc's first Island presentation.
In March 2006, The Martha's Vineyard Times published a series of stories about the extent to which Island teens were posting personal information on MySpace.com, the popular social networking site.
The story created a community furor. Some readers and parents were shocked by the amount of revealing information found on the site. Others were upset that The Martha's Vineyard Times published information about youngsters they said could be readily identified.
As a follow-up, that September The Martha's Vineyard Times in conjunction with school officials invited Ms. LeClerc to the Vineyard. She spent four days in Island schools and spoke to adults at an evening forum that won high reviews from those who attended.
"It is a constant issue for kids and parents, the social networking sites and safety and all of that," Mr. Weiss said. "When we did the program two years ago, we acknowledged at that time it was important, but realized that high school students were already into it. We decided if we offered the program to upper elementary kids, seventh and eighth graders, it probably would make more sense."
As a result, on Wednesday, Ms. LeClerc will make three presentations, two aimed at middle school aged students and one for parents. At 9:30 am she will address seventh and eighth grade students at West Tisbury School, along with their peers from Tisbury School and Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. Her presentation at 1 pm to seventh and eighth graders at Edgartown School will include students from Oak Bluffs School. Ms. LeClerc's evening presentation at 7 pm at Oak Bluffs School, open to the Martha's Vineyard community, is for adults only, due to the frank nature of her discussions.
In a phone call this week, Ms. LeClerc touched on some of the topics she plans to address. "With the parents, I'll definitely hit hard on the social networking sites," she said.
Although she could talk for hours on the subject of sites such as MySpace and Facebook alone, Ms. LeClerc said she has many other timely topics to cover as well.
"Cyber-bullying also is a big component this year, for both the kids and the parents," she noted. "Cell phones are really big - I'll get into text-messaging with the parents, because now you can take all of these measures to be safe at home, but cell phones are like portable computers."
In response to constantly changing Internet technology, Ms. LeClerc said she updates her presentations every day with new material she finds online.
Her programs include discussion about real cases involving Internet crimes against children and teens, tailored for the age of her audience.
"My message is it's dangerous, but let's talk about a way that we can fix this, instead of it being some scary, unknown thing," Ms. LeClerc said. "I think especially for the parents, that's huge, because they're already scared - that's why they're coming. I bring them real cases so they know this isn't just some sensational thing that happened in Florida and you read about it in the news - it's happening here in Massachusetts, and here are some real examples of that."
While working at the state's Attorney General's Office, Ms. LeClerc delivered the Internet safety programs she developed to more than 12,000 students, parents, and educators in Massachusetts. Her presentations have been featured on CNN and in Vanity Fair magazine.
"I could not be more thrilled about coming back to Martha's Vineyard," she said this week. "It was the biggest crowd I've ever had as far as parents go, and everyone was so receptive and supportive."
Due to reorganization at the Attorney General's office, Ms. LeClerc took a full-time position as an Intelligence Analyst for the Massachusetts State Police and continues to offer the Internet safety presentations privately. She recently completed a master's degree in criminal justice at Salem State College.
Tom Coughlin, Comcast regional vice president for Southeastern Massachusetts, said in a recent phone call that the cable company is very pleased to be sponsoring the presentations by Ms. LeClerc, who has worked with Comcast before and brings an interesting perspective to Internet safety.
"She's closer in age to the young people who are vulnerable to it and speaks in a slightly different tone, so that she has a way to cut through some of the problems for kids and parents," Mr. Coughlin said of the dynamic 25-year-old.
Her subject is one that Comcast takes very seriously as the largest high-speed Internet provider in the country, Mr. Coughlin added. "I believe you should combat Internet safety issues through education, which Comcast considers just as important as the technological side," he said.
In keeping with that, the cable company provides information and links to online resources on its website, comcast.net/security, to help people educate themselves about the Internet, its technology, and safety issues, Mr. Coughlin pointed out.
Although it is a large corporation that supports a number of public outreach programs nationally, Comcast is a local company at heart, Mr. Coughlin said, contributing to organizations such as Island Affordable Housing, Vineyard Playhouse, the YMCA, the Martha's Vineyard Boys and Girls Club, and Martha's Vineyard Community Services as a sponsor of the Possible Dreams Auction.
For more information about Ms. LeClerc's programs, contact the superintendent's office at 508-693-2007.