Predators active on Web, parents warned
Sex offenders may think they're meeting a 14-year-old girl for sex, but really it's Detective T.J. Shavers with the Johnson County Sheriff's Office.
Since January, he's helped make 11 arrests -- an average of one a week -- of sexual predators trying to meet teenagers online.
"They come to us," he said. "We don't seek them out."
Shavers and Officer Mike Phannenstiel presented information at Lexington Trails Middle School Tuesday night to a packed library of parents wanting to know more about Internet safety. Although sites such as Xanga, FaceBook or My Space are blocked from the school, administrators are concerned that what students post online could cause problems at school.
Associate Principal Ryan Wiebe attended a conference Wednesday about a curriculum on Internet safety. He said the school would like to begin including Internet safety curriculum for students in their personal global and communications, a rotating exploratory course for eighth-graders. In addition to concern over sex crimes and youth safety, Wiebe said the school is also concerned about online bullying.
"We want to make students aware of the threats out there," he said. "These things are mushrooming and we want to make sure they're aware of the danger."
In the Shawnee Mission district, a Trailridge Middle School student was reprimanded and supposedly expelled for threatening another student on their Xanga site. The comments were brought to the attention of the school's administrators by a parent who read their student's site. Although concerned parents complained the school had overreacted at a recent board meeting, the school maintained students should not make online threats.
Lexington Trails Principal Mark Schmidt said the school was open to parents who have concerns about what they read on student blog sites. However, he said the administrators did not have time to go through every site and look for disruptive content. He said the problem of online bullying only began in the past year or two.
"I'm less interested in what kids are saying outside of school," he said. "I'm more interested in taking those sites down."
Parent Mary Jo Cline said she's confident her children were being safe online. That's because she monitors them carefully. They have to get permission to go online, they have to tell her which sites they're visiting, and they're limited to one hour of computer use each night.
"There was some (blogging) at the beginning of the year, but we nixed that," she said.
Schmidt said that unfortunately, middle school students often know more about computers than their parents and can find ways to get around monitoring software. He said a few students have even gotten past school filters to reach inappropriate sites.
Web rich with information
Phannenstiel gave an example to parents of how easy it is for predators to access their children online.
Using a girl's Xanga site, he found out she attends Martin Luther King High School; is a cheerleader, her birthday and her interests. Although it didn't list the city, a quick search engine found the location in Tennessee. The school's Web site listed teachers, classroom schedules and cheerleading tryout times. It even shows the days students have off from school.
Using Google Earth, a predator can obtain satellite photos of the girl's school, home, nearby park or hotel locations for meeting places. Phannenstiel said all this information gives predators fuel to get closer to the child, and pictures only encourage them more.
Shaver said in one arrest, a perpetrator drove 250 miles to meet for sex with what he thought was a 14-year-old boy. The man even text-messaged Shaver to let him know he was close. When he came to their agreed upon location, he parked one space away from the detective.
"He premeditated it," Phannenstiel said. "He even brought gifts of Napoleon Dynamite videos and T-shirts, because that's what our profile says he likes."
Monitor computer use
Phannenstiel also said most of the perpetrators come ready with condoms. They've ranged in ages from 21 to 45 and so far have been mostly heterosexual men. They are charged with attempted aggravated indecent liberties to a child, which Shaver said the sentencing guidelines for a person with no criminal record would, at minimum, give probation to 33 months in jail.
When asked by a parent if the number of rape cases had increased, Phannenstiel said he believed many crimes were going unreported because the victim felt guilty or responsible after being emotionally manipulated by a sex offender.
He said many students don't tell their parents they have been approached by a sexual predator online.
"If your kid tells you he's been approached by a stranger, you're going to freak out," he said. "You're going to take away their computer, and for kids, that's cutting off their access to the outside world."
Shaver said in addition to sex crimes, the sheriff's office is also able to use teenage blog sites to find out about teen drug use, drinking parties or other criminal activities.
Schmidt said it was up to parents to set guidelines, either using technologies like Net Nanny or by paying close attention to online activities.
"I've worked with middle school students for 18 years," he said. "Ninety-eight percent of kids think they're savvy, but as adults we know they have a lot to learn."