District’s Internet Safety Program Yields Results

In only a 12-month period, Pasadena Independent School District (ISD) Police Department officers pretending to be 11- to 14-year-old girls made 15 arrests for online solicitation of minors. The number of these arrests prompted our school administrators to realize the need for a multipronged approach to educate students, staff and the community about the potential dangers of the Internet.

We understood the problem of reaching all of the audiences necessary for a successful campaign. However, because the Internet was involved, we knew the safety of our students required us to make a concerted effort to reach every targeted audience for the campaign to be effective.

Online Child Predators Often Strike Quickly

“Unfortunately, it takes only minutes for the officers posing as young girls to be in a chat room or online before being approached by someone wanting to make contact with them for inappropriate reasons,” explained Detective Matthew Gray in one of his presentations to school administrators. “These child predators have no set profile – they may be professionals, such as architects, lawyers or church workers, or they may be blue-collar workers. They do all know how to use the Internet and, within 20 minutes, can find detailed information about the child, such as where he or she lives, attends school and goes to church, just from hints on the child’s profile.”

Gray says that the “conversations” generally escalate quickly from writing messages, to sending obscene pictures, to setting up a meeting, sometimes to kidnapping, to child prostitution, and to murder.

We found that our campus and district administrators were extremely supportive of efforts to implement staff, parent and student training once they understand the complexity and immediacy of the problem. Pasadena ISD then took the training to the teacher, parent and student level. Pasadena ISD Police and instructional technologists provided and continue to provide training and resources for staff members. Technology was also used to film staff development sessions, place them online, and allow campuses to view them via streaming video.

Parental Involvement Is Critical to Program Success

Parent training is another necessary step in preventing child predators from using the Internet to take advantage of students. The Pasadena ISD Police Department has integrated Internet safety into their parent programs that typically include such topics as “stranger danger.” The communications department is also including information for parents about the proper use of computers and Internet resources and tips in newsletters and on the district’s Web site.

Students are being taught proper computer and Internet usage, but they also need to learn about the dangers online predators present and about how to avoid them. In Pasadena ISD and the surrounding area, the Educational Technology Network, a group of school district instructional technologist professionals, implemented Internet Safety Week and provided age-appropriate curriculum to teach students what they need to look for and how they can become better and safer Internet users.

Topics included cyber bullying, E-mail, social networking and personal information. These topics were taught with a positive tone that encourages computer and Internet usage while taking proper precautionary measures. Safe and Drug-Free School coordinators are also incorporating information concerning online child predators in their messages and training for parents and students.

Since child Internet safety is a hot topic, it was easier to enlist the media in the campaign. Several television stations and newspapers have become partners in Pasadena ISD’s effort to educate and apprehend online child predators by covering the arrests and running tips for parents and students. This publicity helps to train parents and students and, at the same time, alerts and deters potential child predators from the danger of trying to approach our children.

Because our Pasadena ISD Police Department took the initiative, we were alerted to many dangers and have been able to be more proactive as a school district and as a community.

Internet Safety Tips

The following tips and useful information, which have been developed by Detective Matt Gray of the Pasadena ISD Police Department, are being provided to students and parents through television, letters to parents and Web pages. Some tips to offer parents include:

  • Place the computer in a central area that can be monitored
  • Advise children not to include personal information such as name, date of birth, address, phone number, and school attended on their profiles in Instant Messenger or a social networking site
  • Talk to your children about online predators and have them tell you immediately if they receive sexually explicit conversations or material
  • Make sure their profile preferences are set to “Archive” to save all messages so they can be reviewed at a later date

If a child is approached online, parents need to be advised on the steps they can take to save evidence and report the incident:

  • Have the child immediately walk away from the computer, leaving the message or picture on the screen and contact a parent or teacher immediately
  • Go to the computer and press the “Shift” button and the “Print Screen” button simultaneously to capture the information
  • Open the “Paint” or other photo editing program
  • Open the “Edit” menu at the top of the paint or photo editing program and click paste. The image should now appear on your Paint or photo editing program
  • Open the “File” menu and save the picture or explicit conversation. Save it in a location you will be able to locate it later.
  • Make note of the “User Name” or “Friend ID” of the person sending the material
  • Make note of the time and date the explicit conversation or photo was sent
  • Go to www.cybertipline.com and click on “Make a Report”
  • Contact your local law enforcement agency
  • In some cases you can click on “Report this image” and fill out the required information to make a report

Candace Ahlfinger is the associate superintendent of communications and community relations for the Pasadena (Texas) Independent School District. She can be reached at cahlfinger@pasadenaisd.org.

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