Group warns of internet dangers near the holidays

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By Stephen Thomas

MOUNT WASHINGTON - With recent incidents of teen suicide involving local students, Bullitt County Public Schools are attempting to help students and parents avoid such issues.

A recent Internet Safety event was scheduled by BCPS at Eastside Middle School to offer informational assistance for parents and students. Very few attended the meeting.

Among those that did attend was Mount Washington resident Mark Neblett, who took the low attendance more personal: Neblett's daughter, Rachel, was a Bullitt East student that committed suicide last year.

Neblett and his sister, Sheila Stanton, haven't given up hope to help other parents. They joined Dave Peak, the grandfather of Kristen Settles, another recent Bullitt East suicide victim.

The families worked together to create a new organization called Make A Difference For Kids, hoping to raise public awareness of Internet dangers, most specifically cyberbullying.

Jonathan Rideout, a funeral director with McFarland-Troutman-Proffitt Funeral Home, spent a great deal of times with the families following their losses. Rideout acts as Make A Difference executive director and helped create the organization's Web site.

"We provide a resource for people with enough information to keep them interested plus where to get even more help," Rideout said.

The Make A Difference site, www.makeadifferenceforkids.org, features personal stories about Rachael and Kristin.

"We want the site to be very informational but also in the memory of the teens," Rideout said. "Hopefully we'll make a place (on the site) where people can come and leave a memorial."

The site features cyberbullying information, provides suicide statistics and offers potential ways parents and students could deal with bullying situations.

Suicide awareness is another hot topic on the Make A Difference site. They reference the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stating that suicide is surpassed only by accidents and homicide as a leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds.

Make A Difference offers signs parents should watch for in a suicidal teen, such as eating and sleeping habits, withdrawal, violent behavior, boredom or a decline in schoolwork. The site advises to take any suicidal reference seriously and to seek assistance from qualified professionals. "Hopefully we'll become a resource," Rideout said of the site.

The Make A Difference site offers numerous informational links including one to Kentucky House Bill 64, known as the "Bullying Bill." The site also links to the BCPS site.

Jim Jackson, BCPS District Technology Coordinator, said the BCPS site featured many useful sources for further information on cyberbullying and Internet safety.

"When we find something useful I post a link," he said. "It's an ongoing work in progress. When we hear about it, we'll post it."

Jackson mentioned two links, iSafe Kids and iKeep Safe, that include beneficial information for younger students and their parents about how to remain safe online.

Another feature on the BCPS site is parental control, including links to monitoring software and a parent's guide to understanding often-used sites such as MySpace.

"There's a lot of parental control resources there," Jackson said. "We put as many things as we can into the parents' hands."

Another link is included to the "PAWS" Internet safety site created by parents at Bullitt Central High School, offering further parental information.

There is a link to the Federal Trade Commission's "On Guard" site, which Jackson said featured the problem of online identity theft through personal information.

"We cover anything that has to do with being safe online," Jackson reminded.

Links are also included to memorial videos for Ryan Halligan and Christina Long, two teens featured during the national iSafe event hosted earlier this year in Bullitt County.

Jackson said BCPS planned to host informational forums at least twice a year for parents, as well as work with schools to implement iSafe programs. He suggested that parents learn tips to help keep their kids safe online at home.

"It's really parents having to educate themselves on computer usage," he said. "The kids are pretty savvy and the parents may not have any idea. Parents now need to be pro-active to protect their child."

Jaime Goldsmith, BCPS Safe and Drug-Free Schools coordinator, said BCPS offered as much information and assistance as it could but reminded parents that children need to be monitored outside of the schools as well.

"There are many wonderful things online, the Internet is a wonderful tool," she said. "We offer easy-to-find resources to help better understand the dangers of Internet use. We use filtering devices to block access to certain sites. It's when (students) go home, we can't block at home, the parents need to be alert."

Goldsmith said BCPS would continue to host events such as the QPR Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention hosted by Zoneton Middle School. She was pleased that 58 participants attended the event.

QPR stands for question, persuade and refer. Goldsmith said the group focused on how to talk with someone having suicidal thoughts.

"They said a key thing was to ask questions," Goldsmith said. "That was a big message to send was to ask."

The BCPS site features a link to computer and software resources at volume discounts for parents, students and staff of Bullitt County schools through the Kentucky Department of Education. For more information about the offers visit www.bullittschools.org, click the "Departments" link, then click "Information Technology," then click the bottom link on the left: "Volume Pricing for Students, Parents & Staff."

For further Internet safety informational resources offered by BCPS go to www.bullittschools.org, click the "Parents/Students" link, then click on "Internet Safety info." For further assistance call BCPS at 543-2271.

A few tips for Internet safety (provided by Bullitt County Public Schools)

- Put home computers in an open area and never in the child's bedroom. A computer should be placed in a visible location where a parent can monitor a child's online activity.

- Families should have a policy where parents know their child's online password.

- Remind your child never to meet someone in person they have met on the Internet.

- Children may say things online they would never say to someone in person.

- Parents should make sure their child notifies them of inappropriate contact from others or cyberbullying.

- Discuss with your child the dangers of MySpace and other similar Internet sites.

- Everyone should be aware of phishing sites and avoid sending personal information.

- Beware of identity theft, never enter personal information to an unsolicited email and use extreme caution when entering information online.

- For online purchases, make sure the site is secure (shows a lock at the lower right or in the browser address window).

- Click on the lock to make sure the certificate belongs to the company you are purchasing from.

- Purchase spyware and antivirus software to protect your computer.