It's just about prevention. We really honestly think that prevention is the key — and knowledge. —North Star Principal Lew Gardiner
SALT LAKE CITY — A child shrieked in mock fright as classmate Carson Maddocks pulled his meanest bad guy face.
After that, the fourth-grader and his classmate Rehema Uwamahoro each ripped through a green sheet of paper. They were posing as Internet bad guys during an assembly Tuesday at North Star Elementary School, 1545 N. Morton Drive. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, a guest at the assembly, told the children the paper was a symbol of how easy it would be for an Internet perpetrator to hurt a child if the child were the only one on the lookout.
Carson and Rehema then each struggled and failed to tear through a stack of papers. Reyes said the stack represented the power of the children's unified voices in reporting suspicious online activity. He urged them to report any suspicious online activity to adults.
"You can be even more effective than our police officers and our prosecutors because you have thousands of eyes and ears and you're on the Internet all the time," Reyes told the hundreds of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders gathered.
The school's children attended a training Tuesday, with younger children in kindergarten through third grades learning about the Internet, and the older children learning about cyberbullying and online predators.
"It's just about prevention. We really honestly think that prevention is the key — and knowledge," said North Star Principal Lew Gardiner.
The Utah NetSmartz program gives age-appropriate training to K-12 students about topics related to Internet safety, including the risks of sexting — sending inappropriate pictures or messages over text — social media, cyberbullying and Internet predators.
During the 2013-14 school year, 72 percent of Utah schoolchildren completed the training, an 86 percent increase over the previous year.
The majority of students sampled after completing the program indicated that they were better prepared to avoid Internet danger, more informed about what the dangers were and more likely to report cyberbullying after taking part in the training.
Reyes said he hoped to get the training into all Utah schools in the coming year.
His goal may be difficult to achieve because part of the funding for the Utah NetSmartz program came from a one-time $200,000 appropriation from the Utah Legislature.
The bump in funding allowed the Utah Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs to hire more employees and reach more of Utah's children, according to S. Max Rogers, Boys and Girls Club of Utah County NetSmartz director. That funding helped increase the number of trainings.
The Utah Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs will be reaching out to Internet service providers and companies in the technology sector to see if they would be willing to help fund the program.
Reyes said he is committed to continuing the public-private partnership with NetSmartz, in part because it is a natural fit with the work his office does through the Internet Crimes Against Children task force.
It is difficult to track the success of the NetSmartz program because many of the tips the attorney general's office receives are anonymous, and some are able to prevent incidents from occurring, Reyes said. Instead, his focus is on thwarting problems before they happen.
"I think it's such a hard pitch sometimes to the community when you're talking about prevention, because they're saying, 'Well, quantify that for us. How many cases?'" he said. "But it's not the cases that do get reported, it's the hopefully hundreds or maybe thousands that are not reported to us because somebody's interceded along the way."
Gardiner saw Tuesday's training as an opportunity to arm students with knowledge as summer approaches and children are faced with more free time to explore online.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Let's be honest," Gardiner said.
Children who have tips about suspicious activity online can call 1-800-THE-LOST or visit netsmartzkids.org.
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