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Internet Safety: Newest School Subject

There's a new subject being taught in school, and it features sexual predators. More and more schools across the country are taking on the task of teaching Internet safety to students and parents. School officials are stepping in, even though the online luring or harassment is primarily happening off campus.

There's no sugarcoating the message when police detective Malinda Wilson takes the stage at Steilacoom High School in Washington State. "There's nothing flattering about a freak having an interest in you," she tells the teens in the auditorium. "You know, freaks and predators can be really nice guys. They're not all creepy guys in trench coats standing outside the school with a bag of candy saying, 'Hey little girl, you want some?''" She gets some laughs as she adds, "And they can be cute too."

The Seattle-based detective spends a lot of her time talking about freaks and predators in the on-line world. This is her third appearance before students and parents this week. As a member of one of the 46 Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces sprinkled across the country, Wilson works with local and state police departments on investigations, training and community education.

During her presentation at Steilacoom High, Wilson turns the discussion to the Internet social networking site, MySpace, and its 150-million-plus users. She asks, "How many of you in here have a MySpace page?" Almost everyone raises their hands. Then she asks, "How many of you in here, have over 200 people on your MySpace friends list?" About half of the 200 fidgety 15-year-olds keep their hands up.

Wilson shakes her head. "There is no way on this planet that somebody your age can know 200-plus people in the real world -- know them first in the real world -- and then have them all be friends on your MySpace page." She zeroes in with another warning about virtual hangouts. "Basically, what I'm saying is you're talking to strangers online."

This high school, like others around the country, blocks access to MySpace and similar websites on school computers. It has a security guard patrolling the campus and restricts students' use of cell phones and text messaging.

So why is Steilacoom High spending time on things that happen mainly at home or the mall? Student activities director Mark Wagar explains that some of what happens off-campus continues when kids get to school.

"With us, it's more the bullying factor that comes back into the school," he says. "Kids will get online and they'll tend to do behavior that isn't appropriate toward other students. They tend to gang up. Then, next thing you know come Monday morning we have a lot of issues here at the school." He says that's when it becomes the school's problem.

He says Detective Wilson's presentation was the first on Internet safety at Steilacoom High, and adds, it won't be the last.

Nationwide, education and law enforcement officials are fielding more and more requests for guest speakers and teaching materials about online dangers. High schools and quite a few middle schools are taking this on.

Nancy Willard, an attorney based in Eugene, Oregon, who advises school districts, claims the heavy emphasis on online predators is misplaced. She argues student-to-student misbehavior is a far more common online problem.

"We have young people who are forming or joining [on-line] groups where they are supporting cutting or anorexia or even suicide," Willard says. "We've got kids who are getting involved in hate groups or gangs."

Willard says she's concerned that teaching cyber-safety not turn into fear-mongering.

Still, some find much to fear in the on-line world. A spokesperson for the local U.S. Attorney's office notes that in this part of Washington alone, nearly 20 Internet predators or child pornographers have been charged or sentenced since September.

State lawmakers are weighing in too, with opinions about what to emphasize. The 2007 Washington and Oregon Legislatures are considering measures to require schools to take action specifically against cyber-bullying.