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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, August 18, 2005

Missing girl spurs Internet worries

By Matt Cook

KNOX—A Knox family hopes others won’t make their mistake of not monitoring their teenage daughter’s Internet use.

"These kids think they are so smart and nothing can happen to them. They are so wrong and so young!" wrote parents Richard and Michele Perras in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week.

The Perrases wrote that, in their search for their 16-year-old daughter, Julie, who left home without explanation on Aug. 10, they discovered that she was a member of MySpace.com, a social-networking website. MySpace allows members to create their own pages, listing their interests and backgrounds, and providing links to pages created by their friends. Many members post photos on their sites.

Members can then use MySpace to connect to other members with the same friends or the same interests.

The Perrases, however, fear it may be used for more insidious purposes.

"These kids are leaving their real names, addresses, and phone numbers out there...," they wrote. "Some of the pictures are provocative and one step away from pornographic. It is a pedophile’s playground."

The Perrases wrote that they didn’t know if Julie’s MySpace page had anything to do with her leaving, but warned other parents to be vigilant.

"We want all you concerned and loving parents to please check your computers for sites like these," they wrote.

Julie Perras has called once since she left, the Perrases wrote, to say she was safe. Her page on MySpace indicates that she continues to log on to it.

The Perrases did not return phone calls Wednesday.

On her MySpace page, Julie Perras has posted a color picture of her smiling under the headline, "Girls just wanna have fun." Her list of interests begins, "I love to play volleyball. I love to go shopping. I love cotton candy. I love to chill with my friends. I love the stars."

On-line safety

Elisa Wiefel, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles-based MySpace.com, said the website has 24 million users, mostly between the ages of 16 and 34 and evenly divided between males and females. The website doesn’t allow users under 16.

"More than 70 percent are over 18," Wiefel said.

Wiefel said, in a statement, that MySpace "treats on-line safety and privacy issues very seriously and has implemented a comprehensive series of guidelines and solutions, which we believe represent the best practices in our industry."

Many of these guidelines and solutions have come from Wiredsafety.org, a non-profit network of volunteers, working to make the web safer. Parry Aftab, the group’s executive director, a mother, and a privacy and security lawyer, said that, in her opinion, MySpace is the safest of all the social-networking sites, a group that includes LiveJournal.com and Friendster.com.

Her group has sent its concerns to all the popular social-networking sites and MySpace was the only one that seemed to want to improve its safety, Aftab said.

"A lot of the others don’t care," she said.

Aftab had suggestions on both sides of the problem, for parents and websites.

For social-networking websites, Aftab said, information on staying safe should be posted and easily accessible. WiredSafety is currently writing such information for MySpace.

Tips should include the obvious—not posting addresses or phone numbers—and the less obvious—using a photo editor to obscure pictures so they can’t be lewdly used by others, Aftab said. (More tips are available at wiredsafety.org.)

"In addition [social-networking websites] should teach users how to password protect personal information, and teach them when to respond to strangers and when not to," Aftab said.

Secondly, she said, websites should employ people who scour the sites looking for violations of site policy, sexual predators, and under-age users. MySpace is using advanced search techniques to do this, Aftab said.

"They’re doing some unbelievable things," she said.

As for parents, Aftab recommends very close supervision of children, including regularly reading a child’s page.

"There are parents who have no idea what their kids can really do on-line," she said. "It’s not like reading a diary. If you publish it publicly for 7 million people, it’s not 7 million people except for your parents."

Aftab’s number one message for parents: "Don’t panic. This is not a new thing."

When she first learned about social-networking sites, Aftab said, her first reaction was to wonder why anyone would use such a site at all. But, after talking to some teenagers, she discovered the draw.

During the teenage years, a child faces pressure to fit in with his or her peers. The anonymity of the Internet allows a shy child to form a more outgoing persona, Aftab said.

"What you can do is build a page that helps you express yourself," Aftab said.

Besides Internet safety, reading a child’s web page can give a parent insight into his or her child’s mind, Aftab said. She recommends asking children what web pages they use, reading the content, and discussing with them, "How can we make your page safer""

This is better than forcing children to shut down their pages, which could drive them to use a lesser-known, unmonitored site, she said.

Aftab admits that teenagers may not like their parents’ monitoring their sites anymore than they would like a video camera on their shoulders when they go to concerts, but it’s necessary, she said, because of the real danger on the Internet.

"Growing up digital is really hard for kids these days," Aftab said.

Berne beats rising health-care costs

By Matt Cook

BERNE — According to Supervisor Kevin Crosier, Berne has few tricks left to fight the rising cost of health insurance.

"We’re running out of rabbits to pull out of our hat," he told the town board at its monthly meeting last Wednesday.

But, for the next year at least, Berne seems to have reached down and found a rabbit. While other towns are seeing percentage increases in the double digits, Crosier said, Berne will not have to increase the health-care line in next year’s budget at all.

At the meeting, the town board voted unanimously to switch its employees to a health-care plan with lower premiums. The town will put the savings into health-care reimbursement accounts, maintained by Blue Cross, the insurance provider, which employees can use to help pay for deductibles on their health care.

So, the new plan carries higher deductibles, but the town will pick up the cost: up to $2,200 for an employee with a family plan, and up to $1,100 for an employee who is single.

Employees will be issued debit cards they can use to access their accounts. Crosier told The Enterprise the employees will have to submit their receipts so the town can make sure the money is spent only on health care.

"You go into CVS and you buy your Nexium for your stomach and you buy a Coke and a candy bar," Crosier said. "You can’t swipe your card for a Coke and a candy bar."

Under the old plan, Crosier said, the health care for an employee with a family costs $913.16 per month. Now, it will cost $726.73 per month. The town will save even more if the employees do not drain their accounts.

"We’re kind of banking on the fact that these employees are pretty healthy people," Crosier said.

Even though the town has to pay deductibles, Crosier said, it will spend less money than if it had to pay higher premiums.

As health care costs across the country continue to increase exponentially, Crosier anticipates other towns’ switching to a plan like Berne’s.

"No municipality, that I know of, in the county does such a thing," he told The Enterprise. "I think you’re going to see a lot more of this coming out."

Crosier said he submitted the plan to the Operating Engineers Union, of which most of the town employees are members, and has received no objections.

Other business

In other business at the Aug. 10 meeting, the Berne Town Board:

—Announced that the company constructing the new transfer station estimates it will complete work by Sept. 30.

"They’re pretty ambitious," Crosier said;

—Announced that the town’s tennis courts have been resurfaced.

"We still have the basketball courts to do, which will be next year’s project," Crosier said;

—Considered adopting a local law that would allow people who add an apartment for parents or in-laws to their house an exemption on their property taxes.

Councilman James Hamilton researched the exemption with the state and Albany County.

"There are only 43 exemptions in the state, so far," Hamilton said. "I don’t believe anybody in Albany County has it."

Building and Zoning Administrator Peter Schaming said he would look into whether the exemption would be allowed under the town’s zoning ordinance; and

—Discussed, at Hamilton’s request, appointing a town ethics committee. The first duty of the committee would be to update the code of ethics in the employee handbook, Hamilton said.

He suggested Guilderland’s code as a starting point.

"They have a very good code. It’s very extensive," Hamilton said.

Some at the meeting said an ethics committee was unnecessary.

"I’ve been here 25 years. There has not been one ethics problem in 25 years," said town clerk Patricia Favreau. "So, why do we need one""

Crosier said the town board should first look at Guilderland’s ethics code before deciding if any changes were needed to Berne’s.

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