Technology -- cell phones, computers and social networking and gaming sites are second nature to today's teens. Barnesville High School students learned about the dangers of technology at a Wednesday, April 27 assembly by Sip (Sexual Predator Internet Initiative).
BHS Principal Jeff Crosier said the assembly was originally planned for November. He told students to listen to "what you can and can't do with the technology everyone in this room uses."
Bethesda Police Chief Tim Zdanski began by asking for a show of hands of those students who were 18. He told those students to pay special attention to the legal ramifications of sexting (sending sexually suggestive or explicit photos via cell-phone texts and e-mail) and cyberbullying.
"The Internet has changed law enforcement and the way we do our job 100 percent," Zdanski said.
Zdanski said the first issue Sip addressed after its formation in 2007 by the Bethesda Police Department was identity theft. The second was cyberbullying, the third was sexual predators and the fourth was sexting.
Zdanski said Barnesville resident Angie Willis, MSW, LISW was added to the task force for crisis intervention to council victims of those crimes. He said her involvement completes Sip's "full-circle approach" -- helping the victims as well as catching the criminals.
He said cyberbullying has required law enforcement officials to partner with local school districts because harassment that begins online, "comes to a head at school and sporting events."
Willis said cyberbullying was just one form of bullying, including verbal, social and physical, and is often the most savage.
"We have learned that cyberbullying can be very, very viscous because people are more willing to write things they would not say in person," said Willis who deals with the emotional effects related to cyberbullying bullying. She said those who bully are just as vulnerable as those they target. She described the symptoms of victims of bullying and asked students to be aware of those symptoms in themselves and others.
Students were shown an ABC News segment about a Mentor, Ohio high school where four students committed suicide attributed to bullying.
Despite anti-bullying laws in 45 states, the problem is growing in schools across the country. The ABC News segment claimed that an estimated 160,000 American students stay home from school each day to avoid bullying. In 2006, the Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 276, which prohibited bullying, expanded training for educators and required school districts to report all bullying incidents.
In an effort to curb the tide of bullying, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent a letter to school superintendents around the state last week, urging them to adopt proactive bullying prevention plans. The ACLU's letter encourages schools to implement: policies on how to address bullying when reported, education programs to prevent bullying and comprehensive training for staff on how to handle bullying when it arises.
Zdanski spoke to students about sexual predators as well.
"Soon after we founded Sip, we realized we had bitten off more than we could handle alone," he said.
The task force now spans three counties and has many partnering law enforcement and other agencies. The Sip Task Force has been sanctioned by the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. To date, Sip Task Force members include the Bethesda Police Department, Martins Ferry Police Department, Belmont County Prosecutor's Office, Angie Willis, Barnesville Police Department, Belmont County Sheriff's Department, Bellaire Police Department, St. Clairsville Police Department, Belmont County Job and Family Services/Sexual Abuse Unit, Noble County Sheriff, Noble County Prosecutor's Office, Monroe County Sheriff, Powhatan Point Police Department and Pastor Ashley Barker.
Ironically, Sip also has Facebook and My Space pages. Zdanski said those who "friend" Sip on Facebook can post a logo on their page. The purpose of that logo is to help ward off Internet sexual predators.
He said investigations of those predators are primarily done through social and gaming sites. Zdanski said it is estimated that one out of every 33 children using those sites have received "aggressive invitations to meet a stranger."
Sip began peer-to-peer investigations in 2008. In a peer-to-peer scenario, predators and deviants exchange explicit files with each other using file sharing sites for music and software.
Zdanski said Ohio ranks number five in the creation, distribution and sale of child pornography, generating $94 billion.
"It is a very serious crime," he said.
Zdanski pointed to Sip's recent arrest of a Kimbolton man, who thought he was arranging to meet a juvenile for sex, as proof that "it does happen here."
He told students that having pictures of underage individuals on their cell phones was defined as child pornography and subject to the same legal penalties.
Funded by an Edward J. Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, Bethesda PD partnered with the Martins Ferry Police Department to develop twin labs used to investigate crimes against children and perform computer forensics. Zdanski said the task force uses a FRED to retrieve pictures and texts from cell phones. Students were reminded that even if deleted, law enforcement officials can retrieve data from cell phones.
Lead Sip investigators include Chief Zdanski, Officer Jeremy Campbell, and Officer Josh Batross of the Bethesda Police Department; Officer Charles "Chip" Ghent of Martins Ferry; Officer Matt Arbenz, St. Clairsville Police; Detective Allar and Detective Doug Cruse, Belmont County Sheriff's Department.
In addition to the Sip Task Force, the lab performs state of the art forensics work for investigations on any crime committed with a cell phone or computer including drug arrests, fraud and identity theft.
Pastor Ashley Barker also spoke to students about the legal and emotional consequences of sexting.
She said 20 percent of teens admit to sending nude or suggestive photos and 40 percent admit to receiving them. Of those numbers, 69 percent are between two people in a relationship and 30 percent are sent by someone hoping to begin a relationship with the recipient of the picture. Barker said only 31 out of 225 teens surveyed knew that sexting was a crime. She said those teens with Internet access on their cell phones are more likely to sext.
Barker told students that the biggest danger from sexting is that once sent, the sender loses control of who sees the image.
"Sexting risks your safety and your reputation," she said. "It is something you keep with you for the rest of your life."
Students were shown video clips about the suicide of an 18-year-old Cincinnati-area student and told about the suicide of a 13-year-old student, both from the harassment and humiliation that resulted from them sending naked pictures of themselves to another, who then sent them to hundreds of others.
Barker urged the students to listen, if not for themselves then for younger siblings and friends. The Sip presentation was also made to students at Barnesville Middle School. Barker said although incidents of sexting increase as teens get older, cases have been reported in children as young as sixth grade.
"You are at an age where you keep each others secrets," Barker told the students, urging them not to keep bullying and sexting a secret. She told students to seek out the help of family and trusted adults. Barker told students with images on their phones to tell a trusted adult before they are discovered by authorities.
Barker told students to test the messages and images they send by first asking themselves how it would affect their family, friends, pastor, police, potential employer and how it would expose them to bullying and sexual predators.
Barker also told students about the use of Spy Ware to gain access to cell phone texts and images.
Barnesville Police Chief David Norris was frank with students about the legal repercussions of sexting, defined as pandering of pornography under the Ohio Revised Code. He said claiming to be unaware of the age of an individual in a photo is not a defense. The penalties for cyberbullying bullying, defined as telecommunications harassment and menacing by stalking were also illustrated. Sexting is a felony carrying mandatory prison time. There are three degrees of bullying, but all are considered menacing.
Barker told students that the task force members were there to support the school at the request of the administration. She challenged them to "step up to the plate" and identify bullying and sexting and encouraged them to be aware of school policies regarding bullying and support positive environments at school such as participation in the Rachel's Challenge Program.
Sip presentations on sexting and bullying have been utilized in the Union Local School District for the last three years. Administrators in both districts said the program has helped address an ongoing problem among teens.
For more information on Sip, visit "Sip Task Force" on Facebook or www.myspace.com/predatorwatch.