US attorney offers Internet safety tips

SEATTLE — It was a parent’s — or a principal’s — nightmare: Two underage students in Des Moines agreed to have sex at a party while others recorded it with their cell phones.

The video spread quickly among the kids at Mount Rainier High School last year, and in addition to the potential harm to the couple involved, the episode became a distraction in the classroom — and prompted considerations about whether those who took and shared the video might face child pornography charges.

The incident is the type Seattle’s top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, is hoping to prevent with a new back-to-school Internet safety campaign. Durkan has asked public and private elementary and middle schools throughout Western Washington to send home a letter from her with each student, accompanied by tips for parents and children about how to keep them out of trouble, whether the danger is online predators, bullying or unwisely shared cell phone pictures.

“We’ve seen an increase in all types of cyber crime,” Durkan said in a recent interview. “The hope is to really put a focus on education and prevention. We’d rather do that than some of the heartbreaking cases we do.”

The tips for kids include a series of warnings: Don’t post personal information online. Don’t send inappropriate photos or messages by email or text. Don’t write online posts making it clear no one is at your home. Do remember that people can lie online; someone who says they’re a 12-year-old girl could really be an older man.

For parents, they include guidelines for dealing with a child’s use of technology: Set limits for how much time your children can spend online, and know whom they’re communicating with. Make sure you have all of your child’s passwords, and review their emails and messages periodically. Keep the computer in a shared space, rather than in your child’s bedroom.

Bethan Cantrell, a Bellevue mother of two school-aged children, is an Internet safety advocate who has given seminars on the topic to parent-teacher groups. She said the tips include a lot of common sense, and some of the most important advice for parents is simply to talk to their children rationally about the potential dangers.

“Parents listen to people who are in a position of authority,” she said. “If they actually take the time to pull that piece of paper out of the backpack and read it, there’s a good chance it will have a good effect.”

The students involved in the Des Moines party were never charged.

Mount Rainier High Principal Julie Hunter said that after it happened, her primary concern was supporting students involved in or troubled by the episode, and making sure they knew they could talk to counselors about it. She said online safety is part of the topic for freshman orientation at the school.

“It’s something we have to keep at the forefront,” she said. “You send that text or put something on Facebook, you can never take it back. It can cause a lot of damage.”