Responding to what they call a dramatic increase in the number of pedophile cases perpetrated though school web sites and the internet, the United States Attorney’s Office of Maryland and the Baltimore FBI Division have teamed up to make parents and teachers aware of the dangers children face on the internet.
“We recognize that [internet-related crime against children] is a big problem, and it’s going to get biggernot because there’s more pedophiles out there, but because more children have access to the internet,” said Special Agent Peter Gulotta, media representative for the FBI Baltimore Division.
Gulotta works with an undercover FBI operation, called Innocent Images, in which officers seek out pedophiles by engaging in chat room conversations where pedophiles might be lurking. Pretending to be a young girl or boy, the officers look for people who transmit pornographic images to children and those who actually travel to meet and have sex with children so they can make an arrest.
In 1999, Innocent Images handled 1,500 cases, up from 700 in 1998. The program began in 1995, and now 15 of the 58 FBI offices across the country operate Innocent Images task forces.
To curb the frequency of these crimes, volunteers from the state attorney’s office, the FBI’s Innocent Images task force in Baltimore, and local police have been making presentations at teacher staff meetings and to PTA groups at elementary and middle schools throughout Maryland.
Drawing on real-life incidences, they tell educators and parents about cases in which children using the internet were lured into meeting attackers face to face.
“We use our cases as examples because they are pretty scary,” said Marcia Murphy, assistant to the attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Maryland. “Parents had no idea what was happening to their kids.”
Pedophiles using the internet often initiate contact with their victims through online chat rooms, according to the FBI, and they later visit school web sites looking for more information about the children they’ve encountered. Pedophiles who find pictures and information on school web pages can then show up at the school looking for specific children, federal agents said.
“Some things seem very innocent, like putting up kids’ pictures on a school web pagebut we don’t recommend that at all,” Murphy said. “A lot of pedophiles go to school web sites. We have had people in our prosecutions who have gone to the child’s school because of the web site.”
According to a recent report, “Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth,” funded by the U.S. Congress through a grant to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, approximately one in five youths between the ages of 10 and 17 were sexually solicited or approached over the internet last year.
Only 17 percent of youths and 10 percent of parents could name a specific authoritysuch as the FBI, CyberTipline, or an internet service providerto which they could report an offense.
Marilyn Barber, technology specialist at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Md., invited the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI to give their internet safety presentation to teachers and parents at her school.
“It was very frank and to the point about internet safety,” Barber said. “They were really thorough and they sited real cases. It was a reality check.”
Debate over students’ photos
But some educators think the FBI’s presentation is an overreaction.
The officials from the state attorney’s office and the FBI recommend that schools do not publish any student photographs or personal information, including names or even activity schedules, on school web sites. If a school does publish a student photo, the FBI says it should be a distant group photo, and faces should be angled and unidentifiable.
Many schools that add student photos to their web sites see nothing wrong with doing so. At Andrews Independent School District in Texas, teachers like to publish photos of students participating in theme days, or special accomplishments such as the valedictory, although the district doesn’t use full names on its site.
“Our school policy is no last names, but what kind of recognition is that? Blair L. or David P. To me, that is not enough. I think kids do much better when acknowledged for their accomplishments,” said Annell Cribbs, the district’s web master.
“Students are motivated by seeing themselves on the webthat translates into a lot of excitement in the classroom,” agrees Mark Johnson, co-founder of HighWired.com, an internet company that hosts web pages and newspapers for high schools and, more recently, junior high schools.
“We encourage the use of photographs, particularly group shots. We are wary of single, individual photos,” Johnson said.
Many of HighWired’s clients post student pictures on their web pages without thinking of it as dangerous, he said, although the students are all older than 13.
“We would be against schools taking pictures off school web sites,” Johnson said, since the pictures of student athletes and drama clubs are highly motivating to students. “We think that might be taking it a tad too far.”
Like Andrews ISD, many school districts give parents the choice by requiring legal guardians to sign a release form before they publish a student’s picture on the web or in a newspaper.
Bob Moore, instruction technology director for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, said the policy should vary from community to community, depending on a community’s residents and their experiences.
“If you’re in a community that had a problem, that would certainly affect the approach you take,” said Moore, who noted that law enforcement officials “tend to err on the conservative, cautious side.”
Rob Schleck, director of technology for Milwaukee Public Schools, said he can understand the perspective of government law, and he acknowledges that pedophiles and stalkers do exist.
“If it means a child getting abducted from school, than it’s not worth the risk, even if it’s one kid in two million,” Schleck said. “You have to balance reality with the risk, I guess.”
He also points out that school web pages could focus more on school work and student achievements instead. “You can certainly do great web pages without featuring pictures of students,” Schleck said. “It’s just unfortunate that we have to worry about stuff like this.”
Some of the FBI’s advice includes suggestions that no educator would argue with. Kids should not be left unsupervised with computers. Internet activities should be structured, and teachers should preview web pages before letting students access them.
“We tell children that they never, ever should give out personal information to people they don’t know,” Gulotta said. “That includes phone number, address, where you go to school, what grade you’re in.”
Supporters of the FBI’s presentations say that kids need to hear the horror stories of these internet crimes, because it’s the most effective way to get the message across to them.
“Young people think they are invincible. They don’t see the danger. They don’t see the death,” Gulotta said. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with out there, and kids have to understand that.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Buck Lodge Middle School
International Center for Missing or Exploited Children
Andrews Independent School District
Blue Valley School District