SOS: FBI helping middle-schoolers learn intricacies of Safe Online Surfing

Minnesota schools may have taken a while to join the FBI’s Internet safety program, but the students at Valley View Middle School in Edina quickly made up for lost time, earning the highest score in the nation their first month participating in the program.

Safe Online Surfing was the brainchild of the Miami FBI Crimes Against Children Unit and nearby Nova Southeastern University. Their goal: to teach fifth- through eighth-graders how to recognize potential online dangers through quizzes and a scavenger hunt.

“That’s an important age to hit, when they’re starting to enter chat rooms and get Facebook and MySpace,” said Minneapolis Special Agent Paul McCabe.

Since FBI-SOS was launched in January 2006, about 15,000 middle-school students in 27 states have participated in the program. Minnesota joined in January with six middle schools across the state, including the Edina award winners.

McCabe hopes their win, which brought FBI agents and a trophy into their school this morning, will persuade other Twin Cities schools to participate.

The need is great, he said.

“Not only are kids trusting, but Minnesotans are very trusting. We see that when we deal with a number of crimes here. It’s a great thing to trust, but you always have to be a little wary, especially when you’re communicating online. Anyone can be anyone they want to be. You have to keep your guard up.”

The FBI-SOS online quiz cultivates a healthy skepticism among middle-schoolers, highlighting predators’ grooming techniques and specific lines that should sound warning bells. It also provides courses of action. For example, if someone in a chat room asks for an address or school name, children should not only decline, they should notify their parents.

Acronym ignorance

That’s a group McCabe chided. “Every time I give a speech to parents, I’m amazed by their lack of Internet sophistication,” he said. “Their kids know more.”

The special agent urges parents to check out the FBI’s Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety. There is a lot to be learned, he said.

In some educational forums, Minneapolis agents present parents an array of acronyms that young people use online. “The parents never know them,” McCabe said.

And if you think you’re a savvy exception, with jk, lol and brb down pat, do you know pos? That’s one of the acronyms the FBI teaches parents. It stands for “parents over shoulder.”

FBI agents have to get an education of their own in order to uncover these tips, McCabe said. Undercover online agents are trained by 12-year-olds who decode the alphabet soup of youth speak.

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