Police tap student sites to fight crime

Matt Murrow saw an ugly side to Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park, Kansas–teen drinking, threats of violence, and a student cussing at him still rattle in his memories. But the school resource officer took notice of those activities through an investigative tool some students would prefer he have no access to.

Facebook, MySpace, and Xanga–social networking web sites that students frequent–have garnered much attention as schools struggle with how to create policies addressing their use (see story: Social-networking sites confound schools). But the sites also have become a relatively new frontier that school resource officers are hunting through to find information on student crimes.

School resource officers, many of whom are city police officers stationed at the schools, say that tips on crimes can sometimes be gleaned from photos and content on social networking web sites. In some cases, students have been investigated and arrested.

To what degree school resource officers will use the sites varies. Because of the large number of student accounts on social networking web sites, some officers do not perform routine sweeps, and only examine the sites when they receive tips that pertain to them.

But for Murrow, who ended his term as a school resource officer at Blue Valley West last school year, routinely monitoring social networking web sites proved to be an effective tool at preventing and investigating student crimes.

To Murrow, the sites are fraught with illegal activity. During the three years he used the web sites, Murrow estimated there were about 40 incidents in which he confronted a student or parent about online activity that might have been crime-related.

Currently a patrol officer, Murrow said he began looking at the sites about three school years ago, when students had informed him about threats being exchanged online. Aside from the threats, the crimes included students posting information about teen drinking, drug use, and vandalism.

One such incident included a drinking party that 48 Blue Valley West students had attended. Murrow discovered it when pictures of the party were posted on a web site. He later informed a parent of the student who held the party, only to learn that the same student had created a new web site that criticized Murrow with swear words for using students’ personal sites to investigate crimes.

Murrow’s investigations also have spanned out of state into Indiana–where posted photos showed students vandalizing a veteran’s lodge–and to the private school St. Thomas Aquinas, when a picture on a Facebook account showed a student there holding a martini glass.

He could not gather enough evidence to establish probable cause in certain cases, despite having found pictures online that suggested a crime being committed.

Gary Mason is a school resource officer at Blue Valley Northwest who also has looked at the web sites for potential crimes. Like Murrow, he has done that through students who are willing to give him access to their accounts on Facebook, which bars anonymous users from viewing any personal page on the network of sites.

In his experience, the potential crimes he sees often relate to teen drinking parties. When he finds information that might involve a party, Mason said he tries to contact the student’s parents about it beforehand.

“I’m not going to hide out in the bushes and bust as many kids as I can,” he added.

Dennis McCarthy, a retired secret service agent who now serves as director of safety and security for the district, said there is no expectation that school resource officers and local police monitor social networking web sites in hopes of catching kids in the act. But if a local police officer or school resource officer comes to the district with evidence that students have been involved in a crime, he said, it’s something the district would investigate seriously.

“We don’t as a school district direct our employees to go out and ‘surveil’ these resources,” he said. “But we do expect local police officers to come to us with evidence of a crime,” especially if that crime could potentially impact the safety of students while under the district’s care.

Students who are caught for a crime face school penalties. Russ Kokoruda, executive director of school administration for the district, said he has heard of several instances at Blue Valley schools where coaches kicked student athletes off their teams for having posted information on a web site about drinking alcohol. Students who are found drinking can receive up to a 10-day suspension.

Some school resource officers have made it known that they monitor the sites and encouraged students to not misuse them.

Murrow added that, in his experiences, parents have taken different stances on the issue: Some have prohibited their children from using them, while others say they monitor the sites students use. But there also were those parents, as well as students, who have said the information on the sites is private.

“A lot of parents will fall into the trap that it will be secure. But I always tell kids you have no right to privacy. Anyone can see it, including the school,” he said of postings to the web.

He added that while some students might be posting information that suggests illegal activity, others are posting too much personal information, such as phone numbers and addresses, on the sites. He recalled that two students at his school had reported calls from strangers.

Michael Hazel, a junior at Blue Valley West, said although most students use the sites properly, he has noticed some pictures on Facebook showing students with alcohol. Hazel also knows a student at Blue Valley West who quit the school’s band after refusing to remove pictures on Facebook that showed the student drinking and using drugs. The student was told by the band director to pull down the pictures because he had posted them alongside pictures of the band.

“I think it’s ridiculous to expect any semblance of privacy on the internet,” Hazel said. “It’s called a World Wide Web for a reason.”





Blue Valley School District

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