Tucson-area school districts this year will join others across the nation in educating students on appropriate online behavior, including interacting with others on social-networking sites and cyberbullying awareness.

The new effort is required under the federal Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, which last year mandated that beginning July 1, 2012, school districts must update their policies to include instruction for students.

While Tucson's largest school district, which returns to class Thursday, updated its policy earlier this month, significant changes are not expected because Internet safety and appropriate use has long been discussed with students, said Holly Colonna, TUSD's director of guidance, counseling and student service/prevention programs.

For the most part, the instruction on how to safely navigate the Internet has been integrated into lessons by teachers and counselors, Colonna said.

"A counselor in a high school may go into an English class that is doing research papers, and that's when that lesson is going to take place from the angle of appropriate Internet use, along with the underlying theme of 'as you research your assignment,' " Colonna said. "It's easy to do, and it's relevant, so students may not even recognize that they're learning it."

The topic is also discussed in career counseling "because what's on your Facebook is forever," Colonna said.

Though students don't have access to social-networking sites on TUSD computers, lessons are also conducted on the social aspect of Internet safety and cyberbullying - whether you're the victim or the bully - and the ramifications of misuse.

According to TUSD's student rights and responsibilities, electronically bullying or harassing another student is considered a Level 3 offense.

Consequences for a Level 3 offense range from a parent conference, suspension of privileges or detention to in-school or out-of-school suspension. Law enforcement may also be notified depending on the circumstances.

While those strategies will continue in TUSD, the district has also taken it one step further in an effort to ensure compliance with the new federal guidelines, said Tucson Unified's Chief Information Officer John Gay.

That extra step is a partnership with the state Attorney General's Office, which has prepared lessons for students on what is covered in the protection act.

The Attorney General's Office will deliver the instruction in TUSD for free, although the district is still working to determine on how best to do that - whether it be classroom by classroom, by grade level, or in a schoolwide assembly, Gay said.

The Sunnyside Unified School District has also updated its student code of conduct, which includes sections on bullying, cyberbullying and sexting - all violations under the code, said Jeannie Favela, assistant superintendent for student services, in an email interview.

The district also is continually offering technology workshops for parents in which they receive a parent technology guide, said Favela. Students will be monitored and taught on an ongoing basis about cyberbullying and social media, Favela said.

"We work with parents and law enforcement if there is suspicion about cyberbullying on social media," wrote Favela in the email.

"The district is continually putting up firewalls to keep students from accessing inappropriate sites," Favela wrote.

The Marana Unified School District, which serves 12,500 students, strengthened its policies on cyberbullying, said Assistant Superintendent Jan Truitt.

Principals and staff at all 17 Marana schools must now go through annual training on bullying, including cyberbullying.

In turn, school counselors are required to conduct lessons on bullying at the classroom level.

Even though using social media websites is something students generally do while not in school, Tucson Unified officials feel it is partially their responsibility to provide guidance.

"It's education," TUSD's Colonna said. "Schools are institutions of education, character development and building a better city. These are life lessons."

Aside from instruction being the right thing to do, there is another incentive for school districts to comply and that is E-rate funding - federal dollars that make certain communications technology more affordable for school districts.

Districts that do not update their policies or comply with the new requirements are at risk of losing E-rate funding.

In TUSD, for example, about $2 million to $3 million is spent each year on Internet access, Gay said.

Of that, about 75 to 80 percent of the cost is covered by E-rate, allowing TUSD to pay only 20 cents on the dollar for those services.

"It's a lot of money at stake, plus reputation," Gay said.

On StarNet: Read more TUSD news and find other education-related resources at azstarnet.com/education

"Schools are institutions of education, character development and building a better city. These are life lessons."

Holly Colonna

TUSD counseling, guidance official

School begins

When classes begin for local school districts:

Tucson Aug. 2

Marana Aug. 6

Sahuarita Aug. 6

Sunnyside Aug. 6

Tanque Verde Aug. 8

Catalina Foothills Aug. 9

Flowing Wells Aug. 9

Amphitheater Aug. 9

Ajo Aug. 13

Vail In session

Sources: District websites

More information

Information for parents and teens on Internet safety is available online at www.azag.gov/children_family/netsafety.html

Star reporters Carmen Duarte and Gerald Gay contributed to this story. Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175.