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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 19, 2009
Voorheesville panel advises
By Jo E. Prout
VOORHEESVILLE In response to community concerns about cyberbullying, the Voorheesville high school hosted a cyber safety community forum last week.
Local experts on online predators, how students network on the Internet, and the resulting legal complications of these activities formed a five-person panel. They told the small group attending that parents must educate themselves about the technology their children are using, so that students can be both monitored and protected.
“Students feel a sense of safety a private venue” on sites like Facebook, said Brian Stumbaugh, the middle and high school education technology specialist. Facebook is a popular social networking site where participants post information about themselves and welcome comments from others.
The district recently dealt with hate images created and posted on Facebook to harass a local student. (For the full story go to the archives at www.AltamontEnterprise.com, under Nov. 13, 2008 for New Scotland, “School board hears concerns about cyberbullying and bigotry” and under “Editorial” for “Schools and parents need to thwart persecution of students in cyberspace.”)
“The things that are posted online are not private,” Stumbaugh said. “They can be brought back.”
Panelist David Adkins, the director of information technology for New York State United Teachers, proved this by searching the website www.webshots.com for his own daughter’s name in quotes. A four-year old picture of his daughter and himself of which he was unaware came up on the site.
“They live forever,” Adkins said about the pictures posted online.
“The kids don’t take things down,” said Captain Matthew Campbell with the Albany County Sheriff’s Department. He spoke about online predators and drug accessibility, and stressed that parents who say children need privacy do not understand Internet use.
“That’s not private. We are looking at their social life,” Campbell said. “I am friends with my babysitter,” he said about having permission to add the sitter to his Facebook list of people he can communicate with. Each friend listed on his page has a link to follow to find that friend’s list of friends. Campbell uses these links to see who people talk to online.
“I can watch all the little chats,” he said about his sitter’s friends. “She knows, that’s OK. She’s a good kid.”
During his presentation, Campbell clicked on two links of friends of friends, who were people he did not know. In that short span of time, he found two pictures of underage students with alcohol in their hands or in the background of the pictures. He also found a picture of an unknown woman in a lewd position with a partially-clothed man.
“Don’t let your friends post pictures of you that you wouldn’t post, yourself,” he said.
“It is a social issue. We need to keep an eye on what our kids are doing, and our kids’ friends are doing,” Campbell said.
He said that grounding students does not punish them.
“Let’s think before we act,” he said. “If you don’t take away their phone…you haven’t taken away their social network.”
“Not just cyberbullying”
“It’s not just cyberbullying,” Campbell said about online risks. “We deal with it in law enforcement.”
He said that alcohol, drugs, and pornography are easily available online.
“Today’s kids can jump on [the computer]. My 4-year-old knows how to go to Noggin and play games. He knows how to manipulate the computer to get there,” Campbell said. “Our high school kids…this is their life. They know where they’re going out there.”
He showed the audience several websites that offer descriptions of ways to abuse over-the-counter drugs, herbs, and illegal substances like marijuana.
He said that one site is “more of a database that’s been built over years. This is an open site.”
About another site, he said, “This is not an adult-locked site.” Security programs parents have in place on their computers will not block these sites, he said. Students also know ways of getting around the security programs, like using their parents’ passwords, instead of their own, to access the Internet.
At some sites, Campbell said, students can order wine online by clicking a box that says the purchaser is over 21 years old. Students then have alcohol delivered to off-campus apartments.
“They don’t even need a fake ID. This is what’s out there. Are we aware of what else is out there?” he asked.
Adkins said that students today do not use e-mail, other than to establish themselves on sites like Facebook.
“It’s not a mode of communication anymore,” he said. Students do not create blogs either, he said.
Now, young people prefer texting with their phones, using instant messages, or writing on Facebook, he said. The site currently has 150 million users, he said, and the number is doubling each month. One application on the site graphs each friend listed for a person on a map. Users can click on any of the friends listed and find information about their ages, where they live, and where they go to school, he and Campbell said, by looking at the map provided and reading their chats.
Adkins said that almost half of student Internet users have been contacted by strangers, and that a quarter of them have been scared by online content.
He warned students, “Anybody can get a domain name. It may not be good.” Adkins noted that a site with the name Martin Luther King in it was a white supremacist site.
For times when inappropriate materials, like pornography or hate images, come on the screen, Adkins said, “Just turn off the monitor. Make it go away. There’s a power switch on your monitor. Turn it off.”
Students should not try to close the screens, Adkins said, because some programs will show more images as a person clicks on the windows to close them, exposing the students to more inappropriate content. After a student has turned off a monitor, the student can get an adult to take care of the screen, he said.
Adkins also noted some typical questions online predators ask students, including if the computer is in the student’s room, if both parents work, and the number of friends the student has.
He urged parents to get involved in their child’s “technological life.” He said that, if a student were on the phone for three hours, a parent would ask who the child was talking to. Internet use should be monitored the same way, he said.
“It’s a big part of our kids’ life,” Adkins said.
Stumbaugh said that 20 percent of students have posted, or sent over their phones, nude photos or videos of themselves. Once posted, the image can be saved on anyone’s computer forever, the panelists said.
“They feel like that is their unique world set up for them, and it’s not. It’s open and free,” Stumbaugh said.
He told parents to educate themselves, and to be proactive. Parents should monitor and participate in the technological world in which their children are “digital natives,” said Stumbaugh.
“We’re digital immigrants,” he said about adult Internet users.
Two “immigrants,” New Scotland town justices David Wukitsch and Margaret Adkins, said that they brought only yellow note pads with them. They addressed the legal issues of cyberbullying.
“Students’ free speech rights must yield to district rights to administer discipline,” Wukitsch said. “That occurs even if all communication took place in the student’s home.”
He said that, in 2000, a judge found that, if cyberbullying speech was threatening, it was not protected as free speech.
“If these things get to us in court, they’ve gone too far. Just too far,” said Margaret Adkins, who is married to David Adkins. Many complaints judges see are not illegal, but are “in poor taste, or rude,” she said. “Some of the behaviors are wrong, but not illegal.”
Many University at Albany cases are brought to court in Albany, she said, because of cell phone messages. Speech that creates a sense of fear can be a legal violation or misdemeanor, she said.
“Columbine changed a lot,” Campbell said about the way speech and images are perceived legally. Preventing violent speech and actions “has got to start at the house. You’ve got to be aware,” he said.
Voorheesville interim Superintendent Raymond Colucciello said that parents complain to him about student spats.
“They’re expecting us to police the IMs,” he said of instant messages. “That’s not ours. Unless we can prove the relationship…”
“And, we see it when it’s gone too far,” Margaret Adkins said.
A majority of school board members attended the forum at the near-empty performing arts center.
“It was a good presentation,” said Vice President C. James Coffin. “It’s too bad more people weren’t able to get here to hear it, especially those who aren’t computer savvy.”
He said that the panelists educated the board on a difficult process. The school’s current policy is “not a framework from which to work,” he said.