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Patty Fitzgerald, a counselor at Mannheim Middle School, explains an Internet safety program at the European PTA conference in Garmisch, Germany.

Patty Fitzgerald, a counselor at Mannheim Middle School, explains an Internet safety program at the European PTA conference in Garmisch, Germany. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

GARMISCH, Germany — Behind a closed door, three girls go online to chat. The three are very close friends and tell each other everything.

A few days later, one girl kills herself, and a few days later, another girl does the same. The third teenager, who attends a Department of Defense Dependents School in Germany, is distraught.

Down the street, an 11-year-old DODDS student is looking at pictures of adults having sex.

These are a few of the real-life experiences that participants in this week’s European PTA conference used to warn parents of the dangers of the Internet.

“Do your children have a computer in their bedroom?” asked Patty Fitzgerald, a counselor at Mannheim Middle School. “If they do, you’re almost inviting a predator into your house.”

Fitzgerald was among those at the European PTA conference calling for parents to be required to view the same Internet safety material that their children do. The DODDS Internet safety material — called i-SAFE — has been required viewing for students for two years, Fitzgerald said. The Powerpoint presentation lasts 15 minutes plus discussion time.

If the children and teachers “get it,” Fitzgerald said, why shouldn’t the parents?

Perhaps a parents’ night with pizza, she suggested, and bring the kids. A little pressure from the military command would help.

There is already a lot of mandatory training, Fitzgerald said — maybe parents should be forced to learn about perverts and other online sociopaths.

“I can tell the kids all day, but if parents aren’t aware of what’s going on … there’s only so much I can do,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald estimated that 30 percent of the eighth-graders at Mannheim Middle School have a computer with Internet connection in their bedrooms.

Predators, she said, are skilled at lying their way into victims’ hearts, winning trust and pledging secrecy.

They can track down a child by asking simple questions: “Do you play soccer?” “In which state?” “For which team?” “Which position?” “Which jersey number?” A quick Internet search for that team’s schedule could result in a child molester on the sideline for the next game.

Cindy Gendron, whose two children attend Böblingen Elementary School outside Stuttgart, said the Internet can be a great learning tool for children, or it can be something else.

“In another way, it’s crushing their innocence, stealing their souls,” Gendron said. “I’m very worried about children and Internet use.”

“A lot of us are not [computer] savvy,” said one parent during a PTA workshop.

“Not knowing is not an excuse,” said another.

One mother said her 11-year-old son had disabled the “history” function on the family computer, so she could not tell what online sites he had visited.

Teresa Lawrence of Kitzingen, the mother of an 8-year-old, is one of those nongeeks. She said her son has stumbled on questionable sites “many times.”

“He teaches me things on the computer,” Lawrence said. “But I already know that predators are out there.”

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