By Johnny Jackson
Any other weekday morning, 12-year-old William Starr would have been broadcasting on the closed circuit WCIE television network at school.
On Friday however, the Cotton Indian Elementary School fifth-grader did not do his routine, school-wide, morning newscast. He made it to school slightly later than normal, arriving in an imitation No. 96 Ask.com Stock Car, with NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte at the wheel.
Hundreds of Cotton Indian students cheered the pair as they pulled into the school's drive way - a treat for Starr, who won the privilege through a contest. Students at the school, one of three local schools participating in the "Ask.com Safe Search Schools Program," were asked to submit ideas about how to teach Internet safety.
Starr's was the top idea selected by the Ask.com Blue Ribbon Selection Panel, which included Labonte. Labonte and members of the panel judged the various schools before selecting Cotton Indian as its recipient of $20,000 worth of computer equipment to enhance the school's media and technology programs.
The selection was based on the school's Internet-safety-education activities, as well as Starr's idea, which uses a game-board format to help students learn which web sites are "safe" to use and which are "unsafe."
"They teach us good sites to go to ... and to be safe, and know what you're doing, and don't give out any contact information," Starr said.
Cotton Indian, in addition to receiving new computer equipment, also got a donation of Web Wise Kids' interactive computer games, which also teach Internet safety.
"It's great to see children my own kids' age engaged in learning about, and safely exploring, the worlds available to them online," Labonte said. "It is a pleasure to drive to Cotton Indian with an honored student passenger, and meet the media specialists and students responsible for such compelling Internet-safety-program entries."
Labonte, who is being sponsored by Ask.com in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, serves as the brand's spokesman in promoting Internet safety for children. The father of an 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, Labonte said the Internet has become an increasingly important aspect of children's lives, and needs to be used safely.
"Awareness accelerates with knowledge, and it is heartening to see Atlanta-area elementary schools advance learning on both the benefits and potential dangers of the Internet," said Jim Safka, Ask.com chief executive officer. "Along with our partners, Web Wise Kids and NASCAR, we are proud to sponsor this serious message in the form of a fun program, and look forward to continuing to spread the word that cyber safety should be taught early and often."
Cotton Indian plans to continue integrating Internet safety into its curriculum, according to Principal Natalie Metcalf. "Having additional technology in the school building couldn't have come at a better time," said Metcalf, who said the school plans to open a newly expanded classroom wing this fall.
Metcalf said, however, that no decision has been made on exactly how the computer donations will be used at the school.
The Ask.com Safe Search Schools program coincides with the launch of an Ask.com and Web Wise Kids radio and television Public Service campaign, featuring Labonte, to promote the importance of parents playing a key role in keeping kids safe online. Earlier this year, Ask.com entered into partnerships with NASCAR, NASCAR.com, and Hall of Fame Racing, and became the official search engine of NASCAR.
"NASCAR is proud to join Ask.com in this youth-focused program that showcases safety," said Mike Helton, president of NASCAR. "Keeping our children safe online is one of the most important issues for parents, teachers and children today. I am impressed with the quality and volume of entries from Atlanta area elementary schools, and salute educators and students alike for their active participation in the Safe Search Schools program."