Bill would require Internet safety courses in schools

By MICHAEL KRANSZ
Capital News Service

LANSING — Although some schools teach students about Internet dangers, a recently introduced House bill would require it.

The bill, spearheaded by Rep. Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park, and co-sponsored by Reps. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, among others, would mandate public schools teach an “age-appropriate” Internet safety course in grades 1 through 12 at least once per year.

By the time students graduate, they would be taught to recognize and report cyber bullying, sexual predation and copyright infringements, along with how to protect private information.

Wittenberg said he saw a need for Internet education in Michigan’s curriculum after speaking with superintendents in his district who were distraught about student behavior online and the lack of support materials for teachers.

Wittenberg cited a student who posted something on social media that came back and haunted him when he was looking for a job. He wasn’t hired because of it.

“Kids are starting on the Internet at a very young age,” he said. “By the time they’re in the first grade they’ve already interacted with a computer or a smartphone.”

Steve Schmunk, the educational technology coordinator at the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency, said administrators have long been discussing Internet and technology issues and seeking solutions.

“The bill probably wouldn’t change much — it would just be an impetus,” Schmunk said. “Every one takes it seriously, there’s no doubt about it.”

Schmunk, who works with 12 school districts in Alger and Marquette counties, said administrators are attempting to find what could be called the Goldilocks area of Internet access and filtering: a “just right” portion of freedom and oversight that teaches students to behave ethically online and prepares them for the real world.

Three Rivers Community Schools Superintendent Jean Logan said nearly 400 of its 760 high schoolers take online courses.

To keep those students and other computer users safe and off inappropriate websites, the school monitors search terms and other web activity, along with blocking access to certain sites, Logan said.

A larger problem than security, though, is harassment and inappropriate communications between students, Logan said. Some incidents involve students in separate school districts — an example of students’ interconnectedness through technology, she said.

To that end, Logan said appropriate behavior on social media and other sites is woven into courses that require computer use and is taught as early as middle school.

Greenville Public Schools Superintendent Linda Van Houten said her students partake in the Michigan Cyber Safety Initiative and that it’s been effective in showing students ways to de-escalate situations of online harassment, among other lessons.

The initiative was launched in 2007 to alert educators and students about Internet dangers, Megan Hawthorne, the deputy press secretary for the Attorney General’s Office, said in an email.

“At that time the Department of Attorney General was beginning to actively pursue online predators and recognized the need to educate students about online dangers,” Hawthorne said.

Cyber Safety Initiative topics vary for each age group through grades K-12. From kindergarten on, students are taught to withhold personal information from strangers and how to respond to cyber bullying, according to the department.

From middle school on, topics include the consequences of sending sexually explicit messages and explain that cyber-bullying can result in suicide.

Greenville Public Schools have also enlisted the Kent Intermediate School District to help educate parents about overseeing their children’s technology use, Van Houten said.

“If we can’t continue to educate our parents and our community about it, it will get out of control,” she said. “If we don’t take care of it outside of school, it will bleed into the school and cause problems for students.”

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said it’s important to bear in mind that most of the dangers on the Internet have real-world counterparts, and any course designed to alert children should incorporate the offline life skills used to handle those situations.

“There’s this idea that turns out not to be true that the Internet is a particularly risky place for young people,” he said. “More of the bullying, more of the victimization and more of the sexual assault and more of the property damage occurs offline.

“The Internet is just an extension of things that are happening in the rest of their world, so the safety education needs to encompass both of those fears.”

The bill is pending in the House Education Committee.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR CNS EDITORS
House Bill 5044: http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(nnyvipjlfati2grty3ah3tp5))/mileg.aspx?page=getObject&objectName=2015-HB-5044