In Lancaster, avatar is virtual nightmare for parent - The Buffalo News

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In Lancaster, avatar is virtual nightmare for parent

“Lancaster Island” was supposed to be a fun way for middle school students to learn about different cultures by allowing students to travel through a virtual world with personas called an avatar.

For every country visited, the students’ avatars were be awarded a new piece of clothing.

But middle school students discovered they also were able to undress the avatars completely.

And now some parents are upset.

“What I saw was even worse than I imagined,” Mary Dettelis, the mother of a middle school student, wrote in a weekend email to district parents. “I took a picture of the naked avatar to show my husband, and after further thought, I believe that each parent has a right to see it, also. Words cannot describe it.”

The school district, after being contacted Tuesday by The News about a circulating email expressing concern about the naked avatar, said it recently suspended the program at Lancaster Middle School.

In a prepared statement issued late Tuesday to the Home School Association at the middle school and any interested parents, the district said it will do its best to “ensure something of this nature does not occur again.”

The district, which said it has used the virtual environment technology for five years without a problem, pointed to the educational benefits students get when they “experience” Ellis Island or learn more about World Wars I and II, the westward expansion and the mock trial of John Brown, among other lessons.

In the district statement, Superintendent Michael J. Vallely and Middle School Principal Peter Kruszynski said it was unclear how an undressed avatar appeared on a computer screen with lifelike anatomical features. Officials said they believed it was an isolated incident occurring in one classroom and was apparently limited to one avatar seen by a few students.

The district said it deactivated Lancaster Island and suspended the program pending further internal review.

Dettelis’ email, forwarded to other parents, included an attached image of a nude Barbie doll-like figure with large breasts and a tiny waist. The email discussed her child’s experience with the avatar after she learned at the beginning of the school year that the avatar stripped down to its bra and underwear while its clothing was being changed.

Dettelis said she was very upset that a program given to students as a curriculum tool should have that capability programmed into it.

“I was shocked to hear that an educational tool would allow this type of action,” she said in her email. “This was not a glitch and was not the same as a student surfing the web in the library. This was promoted and handed to the students by the district and should not have this capability at all.”

Dettelis’ email details subsequent contacts with the school administration about her concerns. She said at one point she asked administrators to see the avatar when it was completely naked and anatomically correct.

The district, however, said when the teacher she met with was accommodating her request to see the workings of the program, the teacher clicked through a number of screens to “purposefully” alter the physical characteristics of the avatar.

“This was, in no way, intended to represent what was actually seen by a child or children in the classroom,” according to the district’s prepared statement. “During the demonstration, the parent took a photograph from her cellphone of the image on the screen and is representing to other parents and the community that this is what students in Lancaster have access to, in the classroom. This is not the case.”

Detellis urged other parents to read her email and feel free to pass it along “to every resident you know.” She also said she planned to bring the issue before the board at its next meeting on Dec. 9 and urged others to attend.

“Parents have a right to know what their children may or may not have been exposed to, and it is not the school’s right to take that away from parents,” Dettelis wrote. “The fact that they are not being transparent speaks volumes to me. This is not a matter to be taken lightly.”

Dettelis said Tuesday that she wants to give the district a chance to correct the problem. “I don’t want to go on a witch hunt,” she said.

April Romanowski, another parent of a middle school student, did not have any issues after hearing that there was a chance the avatar could be stripped naked. “I had no idea that could happen, but it doesn’t bother me because it’s an avatar,” Romanowski said. “They have Barbie dolls at home. They are not real. I guess, maybe, I trust my children. They dress their dolls. They dress their Barbies.”

In fact, Romanowski said she has been impressed with the educational benefits of the avatar program, noting that her child’s social studies teacher explained it to parents during the fall open house and her daughter has done well using it in class.

Lancaster Island is a virtual reality environment used to enrich social studies instruction at the middle school. The program is run by social studies teachers and was purchased from ReactionGrid, a software development company creating 3-D simulators and virtual world projects.

Students are supposed to use their avatars to participate in a variety of activities and simulations while learning course content. Lancaster Island – the district’s own name for the program – is a locked environment allowing only Lancaster’s seventh- and eighth-grade students access while in their designated teachers’ classes or in the after-school club. Lancaster students are “marooned” on Lancaster Island and are unable to interact with anyone but their own teachers and fellow students while in that setting.

Students can assign clothing and features to personalize their avatars and provide them with items applicable to a time period or culture.

The district said it now will include a notification and sign-off for parents and students before children are offered an opportunity to experience virtual environment technology. The standard avatar will be presented to students before they have an opportunity to personalize the avatar’s gender, clothing and other physical attributes, the district said.

“Some of the primary goals of Lancaster Island were to prepare students for technology they will use in colleges, universities and the workplace, and to educate students on the proper way to navigate in the online world,” the district statement said. “It is not our intention to back away from these goals. We will address the anomaly that occurred with this one program, correct any issues that need to be corrected, and continue with the business of preparing our young people to be responsible citizens.”


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