Youth safety in the digital age

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Local officials discuss consequences of sexting

GREENCASTLE -- Does your child carry a cell phone? What about a Facebook or MySpace page? As a parent, do you use spyware to track their posts and text messages?

If you don't, you better get some, was part of the message given at the Sexting Conference Tuesday night sponsored by the Chaplains Association.

Hamilton County Sheriff Doug Carter was the guest speaker at the conference aimed at talking about the dangers of sexting.

"You may not be able to control many things," said Carter. "But, you can control your environment."

Carter spoke about some of the issues he faces in Hamilton County as well as referring to the 1991 Rodney King case and 1994 OJ Simpson trial.

"The message these events sent around the world was that we beat people and lie on the stand," said Carter. "I'm sorry; we've gone astray somewhere. We have to change the way do business."

Carter has visited the Los Angeles scene of the King beating, he has walked the halls of Columbine High School and he told the crowd things had changed from the time of the greatest generation -- that of World War II.

"People need to understand what happens from making fun of the little fat boy," said Carter, referencing Columbine.

Despite the aura of depression and fear left by some of the stories he related, he also gave a glimmer of hope.

Referring to the movie "Pay It Forward," he talked about how one small person can make a difference.

"You people in this room can make a difference. We did it in Hamilton County by bringing together the parents of 11 children who died between July and September 2004," he stated.

The parents were asked to talk to other parents and students in forums about individual choices and what it meant to lose a child. The parents continue to do so today and have addressed over 80,000 people in 20 counties.

"There is nothing like hearing a mom talk about the loss of her child," said Carter. Over time, he realized a next step was necessary.

His solution was to take along the young man who was responsible and sent to jail for the death of three other students. He spent three and one-half years in the Hendricks Jail going to the forums with parents.

"He stood next to those moms and told his story. He told me he would live the rest of his life for those he killed," said Carter. The impact was tremendous, he added.

On a note closer to the night's topic -- sexting -- Carter told the story of a 16-year-old girl who nearly ran away with a sexual predator she met online.

"This was a girl who was an A student, good athlete, would light up a room when she entered it. Her father happened to be testing some spyware he heard about earlier and got a hit on it on his computer," said Carter.

The daughter was planning to run away the next day with a man from Denver, Colo. who was a known sex offender.

"You need to know what you kids are doing on their cell phones and on the Internet," he reiterated.

He also emphasized that adults define privacy differently from teens and that nothing is anonymous. There are legal consequences as well.

Putnam County Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter explained during a panel session that if someone under the age of 18 has a nude photo it is considered possession.

"Sending it is dissemination and it could be stalking. Most kids don't know what they are doing is illegal. They think it is private between a boyfriend and girlfriend," said Bookwalter.

Using the delete button doesn't really make anything go away. Greencastle Assistant Police Chief Brian Hopkins is the county's expert on finding problems with cell phones and computers.

"There is free software you can download and it will find passwords and records and a lot of other information," said Hopkins.

"Kids think they hit the delete button and it's gone but it's not," said Hopkins. "A perfect example of that is the Hamilton County swim coach who sold his computer on eBay, and now look where he is out."

Greencastle High School Assistant Principal Russ Hesler talked about issues with cell phones concerning taking photos of tests, blowing them up and sending them to students.

"Think about the freshman physical education class, all it takes is one photo snapped in the locker room," he added.

All the county schools have policies about having phones at school. Most require they be kept in lockers, but Hesler and North Putnam Principle Alan Zerkel agreed that many kids ignore this rule and carry phones.

"What depresses me most," said Zerkel, "is that the school is always the bad guy."

He added that parents don't always see the issue in having phones in school.

Another example came up of a group of Greencastle students who were texting nasty messages to another student.

"The parents couldn't believe it until we played the messages for them," said Bookwalter. "Problems rest in the family unit."

Hopkins added that many students have more than one Facebook page, with five being the average number.

"One is set up for parents. The others aren't," he stated.

"Parents need to know what their children are doing online and on their cell phones," he added.

When asked what to do when inappropriate photos or messages are found, Bookwalter, Hopkins and Carter all agreed.

"Call 911 and report it," they said. "Call the prosecutor or report it to the school vice principal."

"We have other things to worry about in the schools, but cell phones are a problem," said Hesler.

He and Zerkel brought up the problem cell phones might cause if an incident did occur in the school.

"The misinformation going out would cause chaos," said Hesler. "It would cause problems for us to execute our emergency plans.

The most important thing the group was told is to be aware. Use spyware to check on your kids actions on phones and internet.

"Just one person can make a difference. Everyone in this room tonight can do that," conclude Carter.

The conference was sponsored by the Putnam County Chaplains Association and Putnam County Hospital.

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