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R U cyber safe? Find out at Watertown school district’s town hall forum for youth safety online

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Today’s youths have much quicker communication than ever: cellphones to call their parents for rides and social networking sites to share photos with their friends — and instead of passing paper notes, they can send messages faster by electronic text. But there are drawbacks.

To help a generation grown up with cellphones and connected by social media, high school Principal Leslie E. Atkinson said the Watertown City School District will partner with Lucy’s House — a Watertown nonprofit agency that provides clinical and education services to youths affected by family or community violence.

Informational sessions are designed to create a defense against inappropriate and dangerous activity on the Web.

A town-hall-style community forum will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Watertown High School library.

“We want to do this in three steps. The town hall sessions are the first step, where we want teachers and parents to come and brainstorm,” said Robin M. Colello, a forensic psychologist and founder of Lucy’s House. The second step “is to educate students about safe online activity, and, finally, our goal is to develop an appropriate plan of action to face these problems.”

The first town hall meeting was held at H.T. Wiley Intermediate School on Dec. 5. Patricia B. LaBarr, the school’s principal, said on the district’s website that in September, a student at her school was making threatening remarks about staff and students on Facebook. Mrs. LaBarr reminded everyone that, “This student should not even have a FACEBOOK account as he/she is under the age of 13.” It was after this incident, Mrs. LaBarr wrote, that she wanted to come up with ways to inform students, parents, staff and the community about Internet safety and the consequences of misusing social media.

The district held another meeting Jan. 23.

“We call it a town hall meeting because we will do a few brief presentations, then open up for group discussion,” Mrs. Atkinson said. “It’s a chance to open up and share concerns and experiences. I’m a parent; we think we know what’s going on with our teens, but the more I learn about different social media sites, the less I think I know.”

The event Thursday will feature presentations by Lucy M. Berkman, an attorney with Schwerzmann & Wise, who will be discussing the legal ramifications of irresponsible online activity, and Ms. Colello, a forensic psychologist who has been working with victims of sexual assault for more than 10 years and will be talking about the changing dynamics of the online community and how to keep oneself safe and deter the perpetration of digital harassment.

Ms. Colello said her presentation will focus on the history behind social networks, safety on the Internet with all devices, including tablets, computers, gaming systems and cellphones, and how to nurture healthy relationships online.

“There are both positive and negative aspects of the Internet,” Ms. Colello said. For one, it provides information to users at a moment’s notice, “which is good for research, but it also creates a false sense of security and anonymity that leave them vulnerable to offenders or could lead them to harming someone.”

Ms. Berkman said youths need to know there are ramifications for what they put out there on the Internet or in a text message.

“Two years ago, the state enacted the anti-bullying law and there was really no framework. It put a lot of pressure on the schools,” Ms. Berkman said. “It’s been changed since to include cyber bullying.”

At Watertown City School District, students can use their cellphones only in “green zones” such as the cafeteria, Mrs. Atkinson said. But she said studies show that one out of four teenagers has a cellphone or smartphone, and they tend to spend the most time on their phones after their parents have gone to bed.

“The goal is, if something happens and there is a problem, then parents can go to the school for help or teachers can go to the parents and everyone will be better informed,” Ms. Colello said. “People are online more than ever now. We need to teach kids to make their online profiles private and realize anything they share in a text message or online stays there forever.”

Everyone is invited to attend the town hall event.

“We certainly would allow parents to bring their students — it’s their school after all,” Mrs. Atkinson said. However, she noted that “other parents might be more open to voicing their individual concerns if they were in a group of their peers.”

Ms. Colello said some of the things parents can do is to open up dialogue about being a good digital citizen and deterring against bullying and harassment.

Parents can visit www.netsmartz.org, a site that provides age-appropriate resources to help teach children how to be safer on- and offline, take an online quiz about how online-savvy they are at www.ocfs.ny.gov/main/cyber_bully or follow the links of the district’s main page www.watertowncsd.org for more information.

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