Times, schools host Internet safety forums
The Internet's role in information gathering, communication, and socialization has made it a key element in everyday life for children and adults alike.
But, while the Internet has helped Islanders feel less isolated from the rest of the world, it also has opened their homes to the risks and safety issues associated with access to web sites with millions of subscribers worldwide.
Next week, The Martha's Vineyard Times and Island school leaders will sponsor programs addressing Internet safety, offered by Katelyn M. LeClerc, the Internet Crimes Against Children Internet Safety Program Coordinator in the Corruption, Fraud and Computer Crime Division of the Office of Attorney General Thomas Reilly. Ms. LeClerc's presentations will address the issues that face students, parents, and educators.
Ms. LeClerc will be on Martha's Vineyard from Monday, Sept. 11, to Thursday, Sept. 14. Her four-day schedule includes individual presentations in the schools, as well as an evening forum open to the community.
On Tuesday evening, Sept. 12, the adult Islandwide community is invited to Ms. LeClerc's presentation about Internet safety at the Performing Arts Center at 7 pm. Due to the nature of the presentation, the Office of the Attorney General requests that no one under the age of 18 be admitted.
The first hour will include a power-point presentation about some of the activities young people are involved in on the Internet. That will be followed by a live online chat intended to demonstrate some of the realities of the Internet. A question-and-answer session will follow.
Ms. LeClerc's school presentations will include Internet safety precautions students can take to keep their information private, as well as potential online dangers and other issues such as cyber-bullying and web sites such as MySpace.
She has tailored four different school presentations, aimed at students in grades K-12, to accommodate the developmental and emotional differences in each age group.
The interest in the subject of Internet safety expanded here in part because of articles published in The Times about Island teens and their participation on the web site MySpace.com.
Recognizing the need for more information for parents and children alike, the office of the Superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), and The Times joined in organizing and sponsoring the four-day Internet safety program.
"In March, we devoted extensive time and resources to an investigation of the Vineyard connection to the MySpace phenomenon," Doug Cabral, Times editor, said this week. "We had several goals. We wanted to understand what MySpace was, and how it worked. We wanted to learn about participation at MySpace.com by Vineyard kids. And, we wanted to put the issues raised by the coverage squarely in front of Islanders generally and Island teens, parents, and educators in particular."
The three-page MySpace spread generated scores of e-mails and letters to the editor, both approving and sharply critical. Comments ranged from praise for raising awareness about Internet dangers to criticisms for invading children's privacy.
As a result of the public's response, Mr. Cabral said, "We learned that all of the members of these important groups understood little about MySpace or sites like it, and little about the critical use of the web generally. That's why we proposed and have sponsored the series of presentations by Ms. LeClerc of the state attorney general's office."
"Using the vast resource that is the web requires careful understanding of what's offered and what the implications are of a site like MySpace, or indeed any site," Mr. Cabral said. "Plus a large helping of skepticism and caution, to boot. We're proud to be able to help make this program available."
In the wake of the MySpace controversy, Superintendent James Weiss said Island educators view the Internet safety program as beneficial from two perspectives.
"We see the program as a good community service for parents who are in many cases clueless about what goes on with the Internet and their kids, and also as a good community outreach event that we are glad to work with the high school and newspaper in offering," Mr. Weiss said. "We also see it as beneficial to students for providing them with knowledge of the laws and regulations that govern the Internet and how to use it safely.
MVRHS Principal Peg Regan said that in talking with parents, she thinks they are very interested in next week's program.
"This is a very exciting opportunity for us to have Ms. LeClerc come down and truly demonstrate to parents and the community and to students the kinds of crimes that are being committed on the Internet," she said. "We all live in the same little Island world and think our boundaries don't extend much beyond Massachusetts. I think it will be an important eye-opener for many of us because we've sort of sheltered ourselves a little too much."
Amy Lilavois, MVRHS school adjustment counselor, said the response from school counselors has been "incredible," and that she expects a good turnout for Tuesday night's program.
"I think it is important for parents to understand what their kids are doing online, and to be able to protect them," she said. "I don't think children shouldn't be allowed to use MySpace or talk online, but just to use it appropriately."
The same precautions parents teach children about not speaking to strangers, not opening the door to a stranger, and not offering information over the phone now extend to the Internet, Ms. Lilavois pointed out. Through Ms. LeClerc's program, she said, "Parents can learn about how to incorporate the 'stranger philosophy' into their conversations with their children about the Internet."
For more information on the Sept. 12 evening program, call Ms. Lilavois at 508-693-1033, ext. 291. For more information on the individual school presentations, contact the counselor in the respective school.