A story about a high school assembly in Colorado raises some important questions about how to teach online safety going forward.
by Anne Collier
It appears that student online-safety education took a harsher tone in Windsor, Colo., recently. The principal of Windsor High School apologized that "some of the ways" John Gay, a Cheyenne, Wyo., police officer, approached his presentation about Internet dangers "offended, embarrassed and are hurting some of our kids," Windsor Now reports. Two accounts of what happened in an all-school assembly – Officer Gay's and that of the father of one of the students present "and a lot of other people in Windsor … don't match."
What isn't in dispute is that the officer used the social-network profiles of students at the assembly as examples of material that encourages predators, his language was sexually graphic beyond references to rape, and one of the students left in tears. She told the paper that Gay showed the 500-student audience her phone number and "read her blogs and comments out loud." Gay told the paper that he "apologized for causing [her] any grief, but he said he would never apologize for the way he presents his material because of the seriousness of the crimes." Her father's account was that, after the officer asked her to identify herself in the assembly and she raised her hand, Gay displayed her profile and told the students she could be "raped and murdered" because of how accessible her content was. The father added that "Gay gave the example of a girl in another state who had been targeted on MySpace, and the girl was taken to an empty warehouse, was raped and shot dead," according to Windsor Now. Because she'd apparently put her phone number in her profile, Gay called her cellphone from the stage to "see if she'll come back." The father told the paper he "had no problem with the topic of the assembly, and that he doesn’t want to see [the principal] lose his job over this."
The Denver Post reports that the principal "essentially backs up" Officer Gay, and teachers present at the assembly "corroborated Gay's version of events." [Here's Denver's Channel 7 News on this story.]
The officer's presentation in Windsor was not unique. Windsor Now reports that Gay "travels to schools and has talked to 4,000 to 5,000 people, mostly kids." And I remember reading of a similar singling-out-specific-students methodology used in social-networking-safety assemblies in Ireland.
The story raises plenty of questions about online-safety ed. Even if the consensus is that teens need to "wake up" to online risks, is that best done by making an example of one child among his or her own peers? And if the answer is yes, what should the tone of that exposure be? Humiliation is one of bullies' goals for their victims. An instructional tone or approach that comes anywhere close to bullying is modeling the very behavior that online-safety advocates are trying to teach youth (and adults!) to avoid. Empowering youth to think critically about what they see and post online and to be respectful of self and others – in other words, to be good citizens online as well as offline – will go much further toward keeping kids safe online than humiliating them in front of their peers.
But it'd be great to get your views – in our forum, where two police officers have already commented.