Net safety program that trains Utah students at risk in attorney general budget cuts

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes visits The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board, Friday, September 23, 2016.

A program that provides internet safety education to students across the state free of charge may be on the chopping block as Utah lawmakers work to shave state budgets.

The Utah NetSmartz program, which is funded by a grant through the budget for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, is managed and run by the Boys and Girls Club of Utah County, although NetSmartz officials say their staff work in Boys and Girls clubhouses across the state.

It apparently was a pet project of former House Speaker Becky Lockhart, who died of a rare brain disease in 2015.

NetSmartz works directly with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in the AG’s Office to provide preventative education to school children.

A proposed $380,000 cut would effectively terminate the program.

“This money is being handled by a nonprofit through the state budget when essentially this is something that every one of our children in the state are going to have to deal with,” Alexander Wilson, a legislative fiscal analyst, told members of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee last week.

“This is probably something that should be already taught within our public school system or within another aspect of the budget, and not necessarily the Attorney General’s Office,” Wilson said.

Kimberley Schmeling, chief financial officer for the Attorney General’s Office, seemed to concur that such a statewide program may make more sense in a different part of the state budget.

“It really is a statewide issue, and to focus resources of that magnitude in one county, one nonprofit organization, may seem a little bit lopsided.”

But Reyes later told lawmakers on the budget panel that it would be “ill advised” to move the program out of his office budget.

“I’d rather have you move it than do away with it, but I don’t think it’s going to get better anywhere else. It makes sense to have it where it’s at,” Reyes said.

Max Rogers, who has served as director of NetSmartz since October 2006, said that the program provided internet safety training to 61 percent of Utah’s K-12 students last year.

“If funding is cut for Utah NetSmartz, the program would end on June 30, 2018,” Rogers said in an email. “The end of this program would put Utah school administrators in the challenging position of creating replacement programs in time for the coming school year, virtually impossible to do.”

Rogers said that schools and school districts use a lot of resources and time if they try to create internet safety trainings on their own.

“Keep in mind that it has taken 11 years to get Netsmartz to where it is at today,” Rogers wrote in an email. He said that though there may be alternative programs, it only costs the NetSmartz program 96 cents per student to do a training.

But net safety isn’t just good for students to learn — it’s also a legal obligation that schools must meet. A state law created in 2015 requires that schools teach digital citizenship. Rogers said that many schools have met this requirement with NetSmartz.

Rogers said that trainings for students happen in an assembly setting. Younger students learn to talk to a trusted adult about alarming things they see or experience online. Older students learn to deal with tougher issues like sexting and online predators.

NetSmartz also provides training to parents and onsite staff in schools, like computer lab teachers.

“If funding is cut for the Utah NetSmartz program, the biggest impact would be felt by the students themselves,” Rogers said in an email. “Each year we find situations where students are in danger from predators and we are able to intervene and save them in advance. Without a program, these students will be in greater danger.”

Former Speaker Lockhart was involved in getting the NetSmartz program up and running in Utah, according the the AG’s Office.

“Obviously the Boys and Girls Club was a pet project — and a good one — of the late Representative Becky Lockhart,” Schmeling told lawmakers on the budget committee.

Reyes echoed that, saying NetSmartz “was a program that was brought to my attention by former Speaker Becky Lockhart, who was passionate about protecting kids on the internet.”

Stan Lockhart, widower of Becky Lockhart and current consultant for the Boys and Girls Club, said that to the best of his knowledge the former speaker wasn’t involved with NetSmartz.

He did say that she was supportive of the mission of Boys and Girls Club. Stan Lockhart is a past president of Boys and Girls Club of Utah County and has also served on the Utah State Boys and Girls Club Alliance Board.

“Becky and I used to go to their annual fundraiser and we would spend money at each fundraiser trying to help them in their efforts,” Lockhart said.

Rogers initially said in a phone interview that Speaker Lockhart was involved in starting the program, but later in an email said she was not.