NetSmartz gets state funding to keep running program that teaches Utah students about internet safety

(Carolyn Kaster | AP file photo) Anton Eiss, left, and Sirio Chavez, right, work with the civics computer game iCivics during Phoebe Sherman's 11th-grade social studies class at Roosevelt High School's International Academy in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor are backing iCivics, which is now being translated into Spanish.

A program that teaches elementary and high school students across Utah to use the internet safely — covering such topics as cyberbullying, sexting and online predators — will continue to run after surviving budget cuts considered during the legislative session.

Utah NetSmartz is funded by a grant through the Utah Attorney General’s Office and works directly with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in the AG’s office.

NetSmartz is run out of the Boys and Girls Club of Utah County, though program officials say their staff works in Boys and Girls clubhouses throughout Utah.

There was talk of cutting the NetSmartz program in meetings of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee this year, but the program has received $380,000 in ongoing funding to continue.

Max Rogers, who has served as NetSmartz director since October 2006, said school administrators, parents and NetSmartz staff were concerned for students’ online safety when funding was up in the air.

“When we became aware that funding was in jeopardy we were confused because the program was in year three of a five-year competitive grant award and also because the program has very strong public support,” Rogers said in an email.

Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher, R-West Valley City, co-chairman of the appropriations committee, said every year the panel looks for expendable items to cut from the AG base budget.

“All they have is people,” he said. “So anything you cut in the AG’s office is somebody getting laid off.”

NetSmartz was one of the few things the committee could find in the base budget that weren’t directly tied to state positions, Thatcher said.

“NetSmartz is a program that basically teaches you how to recognize when somebody is not a kid, when somebody is a stranger, when somebody is someone you shouldn’t be talking to. So it’s a good program. It’s an important program,” Thatcher said. “But there really was nothing else in the AG’s budget to cut. So it got put on the chopping block not because it’s not a good program but because there was literally nothing else.”

Rogers said in an email that news of renewed funding was a “huge relief.”

Without the state appropriation, the program would have ended in this June. Schools would have been left on their own to try to create similar programs for the coming school year to teach digital citizenship, which is required by a state law passed in 2015. Rogers said in an earlier interview this is challenging for schools because it takes a lot of time and resources.

The NetSmartz program trained 61 percent of Utah’s public school students last year at a cost of 96 cents per student, according to Rogers. The program reaches students through an assembly setting and also offers trainings to parents and onsite school staff.

“We hope to see the program expand to serve all of Utah’s young people,” Rogers said.

According to the AG’s Office, NetSmartz was a pet project for former House Speaker Becky Lockhart, who died of a rare brain disease in 2015. 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 was not involved with the program but supported the mission of the Boys and Girls Club.