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Death by cyber-bully

(Paul Lachine Illustration)

MASSACHUSETTS HAS taken an important step in forming the ''Safe Schools Initiative," a pilot program to prevent all forms of harassment and hate crimes in the state's schools, including online ''cyber-bullying." From my own family's personal experience, I know that as we get ready for the school year, we need to be aware of this new form of teenage harassment and take steps to prevent what can be its tragic consequences.

It's true that the Internet provides young people with a wealth of educational resources and enriching experiences that previous generations could not even imagine. But what are your children actually doing online? To whom are they talking? Are they chatting with friends? Or are they being stalked by predators? Or harassed by bullies? Are they playing inappropriate online games or reading inappropriate material for their age?

According to iSafe America, a nonprofit organization designed to promote Internet safety, 91 percent of kids 12 to 15 years of age use the Internet regularly. While 90 percent of parents think they know what their children are doing online, only 66 percent of the children actually tell their parents. In addition, while 92 percent of parents say they have Internet rules, only 65 percent of young people say their parents have set guidelines.

My wife and I thought we knew the risks of Internet use and thought we had done all that we could to protect our 13-year-old son, Ryan Halligan. But we were unaware that the difficulties of Ryan's middle school life had extended into the summer, then into the evenings when school started up again.

Two years ago, Ryan sat in the comfort of our Vermont home being humiliated online by peers from his school. Ryan discovered websites that promoted suicide as a solution for the pain he was feeling and met up with a peer online who encouraged his suicidal ideation. Ryan took his own life on Oct. 7, 2003.

This is a sobering story, but important to share. Now, my wife and I are doing all we can to ensure that parents and children know the risks of Internet use, combined with the challenges of adolescence.

What are the risks?

Kids who go online have access to inappropriate material, unwanted solicitation from online predators, and can be victims of cyber-bullies.

How can you protect your child? Keep the computer in a high-traffic area: This way you can keep tabs on what your child is doing while using the computer. Know who is on their buddy list: Does your child know each person on their list personally? Do you? Are you comfortable with whom they are associating with online?

Make sure your children keep their personal information private: They should never share passwords, personal information, or photographs online. They should never provide any information about themselves in their instant messaging/chat profile.

Learn the instant messaging lingo: Did you know ''POS" means ''parent over shoulder"? Ask your child: Which programs do you use for instant messaging and chatting? What is your screen name? What is in your profile? Who is on your buddy list? Have you shared your password with a friend? Have you ever posted your picture online? Have you ever been cyber-bullied or cyber-bullied others?

I think it's also helpful to define what bullying behavior is to your children. In my home state of Vermont, we recently passed a new ''bullying prevention law" that included a clear definition. Bullying means ''any overt act or combination of acts directed against a student by another student or group of students and which is intended to ridicule, humiliate, or intimidate the student." Cyber-bullying is bullying performed online, but its reach and potential impact can be far greater.

In Massachusetts, Aug. 30 is the deadline for schools to apply to be part of the state attorney general's ''Safe Schools Initiative." I congratulate the Commonwealth on launching this important partnership of government, education, and others. Taking precautionary measures can help to protect your child in ways you may never have imagined.

John Halligan is vice president of the Vermont chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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