Sen. proposes Internet safety program

April 24, 2009 7:15:25 AM PDT
A U.S. senator from New Jersey is proposing a federal grant program to research and educate children about Internet safety. Democrat Bob Menendez hopes educating teens, teachers and parents will stop children from sending explicit photos of themselves and others over cell phones and the Internet.

The four-year grant proposal, which is expected to be introduced next week, would authorize $25 million to $35 million each year toward Internet safety programs. The grants would be awarded on a two-year basis and administered by the Department of Justice.

Menendez was to discuss his proposal Friday at the George Washington Middle School in Ridgewood, one of the first in the state to start a peer-to-peer program called Teenangels, in which 13- to 18-year-old volunteers spread the word about safe Internet surfing practices.

Prosecutors in many states are struggling with how to deal with teens who engage racy online behavior, including sending explicit photos over their phones - so-called "sexting." Their actions technically amount to distribution of child pornography, a charge that could carry severe, lifelong penalties.

Last month, a 14-year-old New Jersey girl was arrested for posting nude pictures of herself on MySpace. She was charged with child pornography and distribution of child pornography for allegedly posting nearly 30 explicit pictures on the site.

In Pennsylvania, 17 students involved in distributing photos of nude or scantily clad female classmates accepted a county prosecutor's offer that their cases would be resolved if they participated in a five-week after-school program on sexual harassment and similar topics. Three balked and sued in federal court to stop prosecutors from filing charges.

In Ohio, a 15-year-old high school girl faced charges for sending racy cell phone photos of herself to classmates. She eventually agreed to a curfew, no cell phone and supervised Internet usage.

Lawmakers in some states also are taking steps to prevent child pornography laws from trapping teen sexters.

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