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Prosecutors see more kids' computer-based bullying

Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Anne Donnelly talks

Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Anne Donnelly talks to teachers at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore on social networks and cyber bullying. (Oct. 5, 2010) Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

The Nassau County high school senior had a plan to foil his rival, prosecutors said: Create a fake Facebook account in the boy's name, then send insulting messages from that account to admissions counselors at colleges to which the boy was applying, surely harming his chances for acceptance.

But when the prank was discovered - the admissions officers immediately guessed that something was fishy - it carried consequences the prankster never anticipated. He was arrested in May by the Nassau County district attorney's office and charged with falsifying business records, a misdemeanor. The juvenile offender's case is pending, and now it's his college prospects that are in peril.

Prosecutors say they are seeing more and more cases in which young people do harm - and in some cases commit crimes - because they do not realize what can result from the way they use their computers.

Two cases in point are the suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who jumped from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 27 after, authorities say, his college roommate and another student streamed on the Internet a video of Clementi having a sexual encounter; and the death of West Islip teen Alexis Pilkington, whose Facebook memorial page was targeted by bullies for disturbing, negative comments after she killed herself in March.

Nassau launches program

Now, in an attempt to prevent abusive online activity and educate kids and parents, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice is launching a program called "STOP then Send" to go into schools and spread the word about the dangers of cyberbullying, "sexting," Internet predators and sharing their personal information on the Internet. The program includes videos featuring teens discussing their own ordeals.

"We're giving kids keys and letting them get on the Internet highway, but we're not giving them drivers' ed," said Assistant District Attorney Anne Donnelly, the prosecutor who runs the program.

Donnelly said her office will give 12 presentations in 10 middle and high schools - some to students and some to parents - between now and Thanksgiving, and will visit any school or community group by request.

Presentations already were given at schools in Manhasset and Bellmore as the "STOP then Send" program was being refined, and dates are set for presentations in Jericho and Valley Stream, among others.

A spokeswoman for Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said his office, too, will give Internet safety presentations upon request.

The issue of cyberbullying has long been a concern of Rice, who has called for comprehensive legislation to address cyberbullying that would include mandatory reporting of such incidents. Her office developed the "STOP then Send" program during the summer.

"How many more heart-wrenching stories do we need to hear about young people . . . taking their own lives because they were overwhelmed by cyberbullying and embarrassed to death by unwanted images being spread on social networking sites?" Rice said.

Donald Gately, principal at Jericho Middle School, endorsed the Internet safety presentation given by Assistant District Attorney Brian Heid - many elements of which are included in "STOP then Send" - at a parent-teacher association meeting there in May.

Gately said Heid gave parents "concrete advice" about monitoring electronic communication and social networks and advised them to familiarize themselves with the technology. "He knows the law on these things," Gately said. "He explained the legal ramifications very clearly - not scary, but realistic."

Experts say efforts to educate teens and their parents about how to use the Internet safely are increasing across the country. Daniel J. Solove, the George Washington University law professor who is author of "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet," said many states now mandate such programs in their schools - something Rice said she'd like to see in New York.

New York does not require programs on Internet safety in public schools. Education law does state, however, that any school district may provide instruction designed to promote proper and safe Internet use, and the state Education Department will offer technical assistance and resources on safe use for students.

Nancy Willard, the Oregon lawyer who heads the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, said educational programs such as Rice's initiative are good as long as they aren't too preachy or fear-based. One approach that often works, she said, is letting teens hear about Internet safety from each other, because they are more likely to listen to peers than to adults.

Parents of today's teenagers are in a uniquely vulnerable position, Donnelly said, because most of them did not grow up using the Internet themselves and have a limited understanding of what their kids do online.

In the "STOP then Send" presentations, prosecutors go over the importance of not posting any compromising photos or personal information online and emphasize that Internet predators can lurk almost anywhere on the Internet, even when they can't be "seen" as being online. They also teach kids to think about how their actions will affect others - and not to hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.

Lag in Internet privacy laws

Donnelly said that laws on the books often do not fit the misdeeds children commit on the Internet. For example, the charge against the Nassau County teenager - falsifying business records - may seem odd, but there was no better choice in the state penal code.

"Our laws haven't caught up to what's happening in our culture yet," noted the prosecutor, saying she much prefers educating children before they make mistakes.

"These are kids," Donnelly said. "I don't want to put them in jail. I just want them to be smart."

With Joie Tyrrell

and Carl MacGowan

Internet safety tips for parents, kids

Here are general tips for parents and children on Internet safety and protecting against cyberbullying and online predators.

What parents should do:

  • Keep young kids off social networking sites.
  • Keep the computers that children use in a well-trafficked part of the house where you can see what they are doing online.
  • Know your kids' passwords and check their e-mails, text messages and social networking accounts.
  • Don't give your child a cell phone that has Internet access.
  • What kids should know:

    • There are predators on the Internet watching what you do, so keep personal information to yourself.

  • Don't give passwords to anyone but your mom or dad.
  • Pictures are forever.
  • Be kind. Think about how what you do might affect other people.
  • Source: Nassau County district attorney's office

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