August 25, 2020

Student Online S-A-F-E-T-Y: Is your school making the grade?

Covid has laid bare many social truths—not least how truly essential our teachers and our schools are to the health and wellbeing of our children, our families, our communities. Parents and guardians across the nation developed a deeper appreciation for the many challenges our teachers face as they were thrust into the role of teacher last spring. Eyes were opened (often through tears of frustration) at just how much is expected of our educators.

As I’ve been preparing my three oldest children to virtually join their public elementary school peers (all giddy with their new, shiny Chromebooks), I’ve certainly felt a stronger sense of gratitude, camaraderie, and shared responsibility with teachers and administrators for ensuring a healthy, productive, and safe learning environment for our children—especially during the pandemic. 

One critical area we must work together to improve is students’ online safety.

We must work to improve #OnlineSafety for our children during #VirtualLearning. Here's how: Click To Tweet

Why, when there are so many other challenges, should schools prioritize cybersafety? Is access to pornography and potential access by predators really such a problem at schools? Yes: it’s a much bigger problem than most teachers (and certainly parents) realize—and distance learning is only exacerbating the dangers.  

At its best, technology facilitates creativity, fosters connections, and expands access to content, but it can also expose our children to physical danger, emotional distress, and mental harm. With so many more children online for longer periods of time during COVID-19 (for school and leisure), the FBI, US Department of Justice, National Center on Missing and Exploited Children, and countless other experts have issued warnings that the pandemic is expanding online risks such as exposure to pornography, child sexual abuse material, grooming by predators, and child sex trafficking.

Schools must recognize, prioritize, and minimize students’ potential exposure to predators, pornography, and—sadly—other students causing harm by implementing best practices for online SAFETY: 

Safeguards on school-issued devices and platforms

Age-appropriate research databases

Filtered Internet and Wi-fi (including hotspots)

Education for parents 

Teacher training

Youth empowerment

Schools must recognize, prioritize, and minimize students' potential exposure to predators and pornography by implementing these best practices for #OnlineSafety. Click To Tweet

Safeguards on School-Issued Devices

All those Chromebooks and iPads being handed out are critical for continuing education during the pandemic: yet most of them are placed in children’s hands with no parental controls or other safeguards in place. Even if families and schools have adequate Internet filters at home (and many don’t), additional controls on the devices, search engines, and apps provide an extra layer of protection from pornographic and sexually explicit material. Schools should be turning on parental controls before giving devices to students. If they don’t have the bandwidth or have already distributed them, schools should provide clear instructions to parents and guardians about how to do so at home. Information on what, if any, safety measures have been put in place by the school to families would also alleviate a lot of concern and frustration.

  • Safeguard your students’ devices and apps by visiting our ally: Protect Young Eyes. Find the devices or apps your students are using, read about the risks, and follow their step-by-step instructions to turn on privacy and controls. Please share this with your teachers and families!
  • National Center on Sexual Exploitation has been working with Google for many years to improve the safety of their products for minors. While they’ve made some improvements, they still have a long way to go. Join us in asking Google to make Chromebooks safer for kids. You can also read about why Google is on our 2020 Dirty Dozen List.

Age-Appropriate Research Databases

(this section edited for clarity on 11/02/20)

Is your school (or partner library) using EBSCO or Gale as its research databases? If so, your students may be exposed to sexually explicit material and even pornography, including live links to pornography and prostitution/escort websites and articles promoting risky sexual behavior (group or hook-up sex, incest, and “sugar dating”). We’re even seeing articles with ads for sex toys in databases marketed toward kids as young as 12. And get this: these databases contain loopholes that bypass Internet filters. Educators and parents are paying closer attention and calling out these corporations for including material that is harmful to minors. Parents in several states are pushing legislation to close the loopholes and set basic standards for these databases. School boards, administrators, and teachers need to be aware of these problematic databases and consider turning them off until they can prove sexually explicit material and pornography has been removed by the corporations. We’ll have more on EBSCO in next week’s Back to School(ing) Campaign blog, in the meantime here are some resources to learn more and act:

Filtered Internet and Wi-fi (including hotspots)

Schools that receive federal E-rate funding are mandated to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)  to monitor how students are using the Internet, use software that blocks access to harmful material, and implement an Internet safety plan. Coronavirus complicates this, but school districts can and should find ways to provide filtered Internet access to students (our district ensures filtered Internet when kids log into devices with their school email). If school districts are working with ISPs and telephone carriers to provide discounted or even free access, they should require defaulted filtering.

Education for Parents

We’re in this together. Help us help you by giving us the information we need to keep our kids safe. Please educate families about online risks and how to mitigate them. I know school districts and schools around the country are hosting webinars and teaching sessions about technology during distance learning: ensure that each session has a segment and resources on device and platform safety controls (including for  Zoom!). Have the PTA sponsor a special session for parents regarding Digital Safety. At the very least, be very clear with families what platforms and websites their kids will be using, provide them their children’s passwords, and direct them to resources they can use to have age-appropriate conversations with their kids at home about body safety, harms of pornography, digital citizenship, etc.

Teacher Training

We’ve been hearing of teachers using social media platforms like Snapchat, WhatsApp and TikTok to engage students, when those platforms are known to be pedophile hunting grounds and rampant with child sex abuse material. Do your teachers know the risks of the platforms, devices, and education tools they’re using? Are they clear about protocols and procedures when a student is exposed to or even sharing pornography (including sexually explicit pictures of peers) while completing school assignments, on the playground, or school bus? Do they have the support and training necessary to deal with these potential harms? Digital Safety should be required for all school personnel—and there are many fantastic resources school administrations can use and tailor for their community.

Youth Empowerment 

Part of doing everything we can to protect our kids is to teach them to protect themselves. Does your school curriculum include digital citizenship, cyber security, or critical porn analysis?

In our increasingly tech-reliant education system, lessons around these issues should be required, prioritized, and ongoing. At a minimum, students should be well aware of school policies and expectations around devices (school-issued and personal) and Internet usage. Sooner, not later, is when students should be taught in age-appropriate ways about body safety, recognizing predatory behavior (in person and online), understanding the harms of pornography and what to do if they’re exposed to it, being clear on the socio-emotional risks of “sexting”: sending sexually explicit photos of themselves, as well as the potential consequences—including criminal liability—of taking and/or sharing sexually explicit material or using it to bully, shame, or threaten someone (i.e. “revenge porn”), and most importantly what to do if they feel uncomfortable or threatened.

School boards, administrators, and PTA need to prioritize safety to #ProtectChildrenOnline. Click To Tweet

Is your school making the grade when it comes to your student’s online safety? If not, talk to your boards, your administrators, and your PTA to ensure online S-A-F-E-T-Y is prioritized. Failing to protect our kids in an increasingly digital education system is just not an option.

ACTION: Send this letter to your school board, superintendent, PTA, and/or principal.


*The National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s 2020 Back to School(ing) Campaign aims to equip families and educators with information, resources, and actions they can take to keep kids safe online as vast numbers of students start the school year in a virtual learning environment. Over the four week campaign, we’ll feature the people, organizations, and entities that can have the greatest impact ensuring a safe online learning environment, specifically: families, schools, corporations, and the US federal government. This is Part 2 of 4: School boards and administrators.*

Lina Nealon

Director of Corporate and Strategic Initiatives

Lina Nealon is committed to promoting the dignity of every human being and creating a society where everyone can reach their full potential.  As the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s Director of Corporate and Strategic Initiatives, she spearheads NCOSE’s campaigns to hold corporations accountable for profiting from sexual exploitation. As Founding Director of Demand Abolition, Lina designed and led the first national program combatting the demand for paid sex that drives the global sex industry. Under her leadership, Demand Abolition coalesced a vastly diverse network of survivors, movement leaders, and allies across sectors and disciplines to implement tactics to stop sex buyers, disrupt commercial sex markets, and transform cultural norms around buying sex.  Lina was the leading architect of the Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE), a collaboration between twelve major US cities measurably decreasing demand in their communities and a founder co-chair of the World Without Exploitation coalition.

Ms. Nealon has advised governors, attorneys general, mayors and other elected officials, police chiefs, leading philanthropists, and business leaders in promising practices to reduce demand and has drafted numerous policies and legislation at the federal, state, and local levels to stop exploitation. She co-chaired the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Anti-Trafficking Taskforce Demand Committee and was a founding member of Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Working Group on Modern Slavery. Ms. Nealon has provided expert commentary and has published articles for top-tier media including MSNBC, PBS, NPR, Boston Globe, Congressional Quarterly Review, Al Jazeera, etc.

A mother of three girls and a sexual assault survivor herself, Ms. Nealon is driven to elevate survivor leadership and promote women’s and girls’ empowerment. As a Policy Specialist and Trainer with the Institute for Inclusive Security, Lina ensured women’s significant representation in peace processes and reconstruction efforts across dozens of post-conflict countries. She served as Executive Director of Girls on the Run (Greater Triangle Area, NC), sat on the Women2Women Advisory Council, and has mentored numerous young women in building their confidence, leadership skills, and resilience. Lina and her husband Brian are raising four young, adventurous, nature-loving, socially-conscious abolitionists in Durham, North Carolina.

Further Reading