11/30/10 — Teacher talks to Eastern Wayne students about dangers lurking online

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Teacher talks to Eastern Wayne students about dangers lurking online

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 30, 2010 1:46 PM

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Karen Garris, media coordinator at Eastern Wayne High School, discusses cyberbullying and online safety with students.

When it comes to cyberbullying and online social networking, parents need just as much education as their children.

Karen Garris, media coordinator at Eastern Wayne High School, said she would like to see more adults involved in a discussion of the subject.

"Parents are not aware of what's going on. They may not even be aware that we're having to teach it in school," she said.

The district has adopted a state-provided curriculum on the subject of Internet safety, which also delves into such aspects as predators and sexting.

When Mrs. Garris began introducing the curriculum a few years, it was primarily taught to incoming ninth-graders at the school. Now it's being offered to every student at the school.

As rapidly as technology changes, so does the information, and misinformation, about the topic.

"Some information I got said 63 percent (of youths) have cell phones and 55 percent have profiles (online). That's clearly low," she said. "It's more like 90 to 95 percent have cell phones and 95 to 98 percent have profiles.

"Parents don't know what's going on. I ask the students, 'How many of you go into your room at night and your parents don't know what you're doing?' Bunches and bunches of them do."

It's been interesting to witness the cultural climate of the average high school student, Mrs. Garris said.

"You can see the eyes, read the body language, and then they get very vocal," she explained. "When you ask them how many of them know friends who have a relationship with someone online that they have never seen -- they call that an exclusive relationship in here -- you always have at least four or five in every group."

As innocent as it may sound to a youth, Mrs. Garris said it can be alarming and even dangerous.

"Do they realize that they could be another male, it could be a woman, they give out fictitious information?" she said, citing one example she uses in her sessions about a 13-year-old girl kidnapped in Virginia after going to meet someone who had stalked her online for eight months.

The girl escaped after four days, but the situation prompted the enactment of Alicia's Law in 2008.

Stories like this, while alarming, are still considered "new crimes" that law enforcement has not had to deal with before.

And the list of potentially scary situations continues to grow, Mrs. Garris said.

"One of the things that I tell them, they don't realize that what is posted online can stay on there indefinitely," she said. "I'm finding that as we talk about certain aspects of it, like teens being arrested for underage drinking after police saw pictures posted online, I got a lot of questions from kids about, 'Isn't that illegal, invading their privacy?'"

The world today can be a very dangerous place, especially if young people are not equipped to handle it. The best she can hope for, Mrs. Garris said, is that education and information are provided.

"You hope that something is getting through to some of them," she said. "If I can reach 5 or 10 in groups of 50 to 60, that's good. And I tell them, too, don't follow what other people do -- be yourself, be strong enough to stand up for yourself and don't let the peer pressure get in the way."

She and her counterparts around the county can only be so effective, however, she says. Parental involvement in the process will be the best line of defense.

"That's my hope, that before the school year is over, that I can set something up with parents and do something for them and maybe the middle schools, too, because they start young," she said.

Most schools have a parent support group of some sort, which is a good starting point. But it'll also take effort on the part of the adults to show up.

Parental participation is key, agreed Olivia Pierce, executive director of community relations, media and technology for the school district.

"Parents just making sure they know what (their children) are doing when they're using the computer, and just teaching safety with Facebook, make sure you have your privacy settings, make sure you constantly check because Facebook will change those from time to time," she said. "A lot of parents feel intimidated by this. They should feel free to ask a media coordinator or other personnel in school about resources."

School officials also recommended several websites for parents to check out, including www.netsmartz.org, www.cyberbully411.org and www.staysafe.org.