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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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December072007

Debating Federal Funding for Online Safety Curricula

A coalition of online safety organizations and activists has come out in support of federal legislation that would create a $50 million grant program supporting online safety education initiatives. They’re also criticizing a competing measure on Capitol Hill that would target funding to a single online safety organization.

Given the amount of news coverage that’s been dedicated to online safety issues ranging from cyber bullies to predators to privacy proection, it’s no surprise that Congress has taken an interest in funding efforts to create and disseminate online safety curricula. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that a debate has erupted among online safety experts over the best way to get the most bang for their federal buck.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) recently introduced H.R. 4134. The bill directs the U.S. Attorney General to appropriate a total of $25 for the online safety organization i-SAFE. Since 2002, i-SAFE has received federal funds to create free online safety curricula. This year, it’s expected to reach more than six millions students across the country.

H.R. 4134 would also establish a competitive grant program for other organizations, “subject to the availability of the funds,” though there is no guarantee such funds would become available. The bill goes on to specify that the money would be invested in “Internet crime prevention programs” for schools and the general public, including curricula focused on online predators and cyberbullies.

Introduced on November 9, H.R. 4134 shot through the House quickly, passing by voice vote on November 13. That same day, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced S. 2344, the Internet Safety Education Act of 2007. In contrast to the House bill, the Senate bill focuses on an open grant competition “to provide for age-appropriate Internet education for children.” The Justice Department would authorize $10 million in grants per year for a five-year period.

Because the House bill would guarantee funds only for one online safety organization, a coalition of activists and groups came together this week to challenge it and throw their support behind the Senate bill. Among the groups represented in the letter are WiredSafety.org, the Consortium for School Networking, the Family Online Safety Institute, TechMission and the National Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

The Dec. 5 letter, addressed to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), expresses “strong support” for S. 2344 while criticizing H.R. 4134:

Although H.R. 4134 would also authorize $50 million spanning fiscal years 2008 through 2012, $25 million would be dedicated funding for i-SAFE alone. i-SAFE is only one of many nationally recognized organizations that offer Internet safety programs and this dedicated funding is disproportionate to the overall funding authorized in the bill. In the ever-changing world of technology and youth online safety, the best way for Congress to protect children online is to support collaborative, comprehensive and diversified approaches to online safety education….

Open competition returns the best value to the government and the public. Our organizations learn together as we seek to better understand the issues and concerns related to youth risk online, and each offer critical elements of a larger protective network of supports that—only when taken together—can hope to stem the tide of harmful and significant Internet risks. Authorizing such significant and disproportionate funding to only one organization, as written in H.R. 4134, is not good public policy and would undermine our proactive and innovative efforts.

S. 2344 provides a much-needed, positive step forward in the collective effort to protect children and families online by acknowledging that the issues surrounding protecting kids online are complex and are most effectively addressed on multiple fronts. Together, we urge the Senate to adopt S. 2344 and to reject H.R. 4134 as currently written.

“I became involved in this coalition effort to bring awareness to the need for increased funding to the many groups who are working hard every day to bring creative effective programs to children and parents about Internet safety,” said Judi Westberg Warren, president of Web Wise Kids, in an email interview. “Children have many different learning styles and research shows that the messages need to be reinforced in many ways, so each unique approach fills an important niche. Funding is so crucial to all Internet Safety organizations that it is my belief that the country is best served by a transparent and competitive grant process open to all.”

“S. 2344, according to the Senator who drafted the bill, would direct the funds to the states, schools, and local community organizations that are providing the education to young people, parents, and teachers,” added Nancy Willard of the National Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. “These are the organizations that are in the best position to assess the quality of the instructional material and its appropriateness for their community.”

Anne Collier of NetFamilyNews.org, said she feels the House bill doesn’t reflect the realities of Web 2.0 and the way young people use the Internet today:

I signed the letter because HR 4134 just isn’t logical. Educating the public about safety and citizenship on a user-driven, grassroots medium - the social Web - requires many different types of expertise, diversity of messaging, and ongoing collaboration within the community of people involved in the education. The educating just can’t be top-down (adult-to-child), one-size-fits-all, one-to-many dissemination, the approach the bill reflects. Online-safety education these days has to be discussion, and the users driving this social medium - youth - are necessarily among the experts in the discussion. A bill that largely funds a single organization is a “solution” that just doesn’t fit the “problem.”

A typical social-networking site, especially MySpace, is whatever any user wants it to be. If it’s even possible to write an online-safety “curriculum” for all of its users, it would have to be awfully dynamic, highly customizable, acknowledging how individual the experience is. I think our society’s messaging (that of the online-safety advocates, policymakers, and the media combined) has been very misdirected so far. “Online safety” - where predation is concerned, and that’s where about 90% of the messaging has focused to date - needs to address at-risk teens, children seeking out high-risk sexual behavior. it also needs to reach children engaging in cutting, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. So it needs to bring in expertise that the online-safety field hasn’t yet embraced: child development and psychology, pediatrics, at-risk behavior, etc. (in fact, the term “online safety” may be becoming obsolete).

The other 90-or-so percent of teen social networkers who are mostly just socializing with their friends at school need solid education in citizenship online and offline. How to treat each other, how to function in community. That’ll cover a great deal of the “problem,’ particularly cyberbullying, which covers everything from nasty gossip to profiles of fictional people which cause children to consider and commit suicide. Cyberbullying is the “online-safety risk” that affects a great many more online kids than predation - potentially 7 million teens vs. a few hundred…. S 2344 simply opens the door for a diverse group of organizations to have at this complicated problem that involves an unprecedented clash between free speech and child protection

i-SAFE, meanwhile, strongly defends H.R. 4134, arguing that not funding them would undermine the significant federal investments already made in their programs, threatening access to the free resources they provide. Teri Schroeder, CEO of i-SAFE, told me that House bill was appropriate:

H.R. 4134 authorizes the Congress to provide funds for i-SAFE, in order to maintain the nation’s investment a highly acclaimed nationally standardized FREE Internet safety for K-12 schools, as well as funds for other Internet safety organizations to participate in the Internet safety education process in those instances where local schools choose not to adopt and deliver the more comprehensive and standardized i-SAFE curricula the Congress has provided….

i-SAFE’s Internet safety curriculum already is deployed in every state and will reach more than 6 million K-12 students in the 2007-08 school year, ensuring all these students, regardless of their location, will receive the same quality and content of Internet safety education. H.R. 4134 protects and maintains this investment and goes a step further by providing competitive funds to foster innovation and provide options that fit the unique requirements of local schools and school districts.

We believe H.R. 4134 is the better approach since it is more comprehensive and all encompassing piece of legislation than SB 2344 and maintains the integrity of the $13M Congress has invested in the nationwide deployment of i-SAFE Internet safety K-12 curricula.

It remains to be seen how this particular debate will be sorted out. For example, the Senate may choose to pass S. 2344, possibly leading to a conference committee in which members of both chambers would come together and forge a compromise based on both bills. It’s also possible that a parallel version of H.R. 4134 might be introduced in the Senate. If this were the case, and if it passed as quickly as it did in the House, i-SAFE might win the day. Either way, it seems clear that there is momentum within Congress to demonstrate that they’re taking online safety education seriously. Now we’ll just have to wait and see who gets funded to do what. -andy

Filed under : Media Literacy, Policy, Safety

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