Computer Crime Research Center

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Kids get lesson on Internet predators

Date: January 02, 2005
Source: Computer Crime Research Center
By: Robert T DeMarco

To the casual eye, they looked like nothing more than eager sixth-graders tackling a computer course.

Officer Tim Dickerson of the Camas Police Department knows better. "We know for a fact that you are prime targets for this kind of activity," he told the young students. That is, ready prey: for kidnapping, sex abuse, child pornography, or worse.

It got very quiet inside the old Camas High School library room about then. These were harsh words for 11- and 12-year-old ears. But the reality is equally grim, prompting Camas police and school leaders to launch an aggressive program, the first of its kind in Clark County, to educate parents and children on the growing menace of sexual predators on the Internet and how to defeat them.

Starting this month, every sixth-grade class in the Camas district is getting a one-day, six-hour session with Dickerson or his colleague, Kit Kanekoa. Their teaching tool is an interactive CD game requiring students to crack a child-abduction case. School officials have chosen to shelve sixth-grade D.A.R.E. substance-abuse training this year, in favor of the innovative Internet predator program. By next spring, all seventh- and eighth-graders at Skyridge Mid School will receive the same training. It also will become part of the standard Camas sixth-grade curriculum.

As part of the course, students return a signed, individual Internet Safety Plan crafted with parents that prescribes what happens at home should they be targeted with personal and sexual queries or sexual images, which are typical in the grooming process used by predators. Opening parents' eyes is every bit as crucial as raising children's awareness, Dickerson said.

"Parents think none of this can happen to their kids. It does," he said.

Police were weighing the program even before a Clark County 14-year-old was taken captive north of Camas last August by a man she had met on the Internet. She was found, beaten and abused, two weeks later in a house near Tacoma. The incident made the case for more training an easy one. After a meeting that drew about 40 parents, the school board gave its blessing to add the course.

"Tim told us now is the time for this to come up," said board President Marcia Johnson.

And sixth grade is the right time to reach students, most agree. They are diving into the Internet, text messaging and checking out chat rooms. While skeptical on many counts, they often remain naive and gullible in the area of new "friendships" with strangers they only think they know.

That's the core of the flashy "Missing" computer game devised by a Vancouver, B.C., company in 2000, now distributed by the Santa Ana, Calif.-based Web Wise Kids.

At least 340,000 students in 47 states have tried the game, offered at no cost to police and schools, thanks to federal grants and private dollars, a company spokeswoman said.

In the game, a character named Zack, who is unhappy at home, finds kinship with a 40-year-old passing himself off as Fantasma, a hip California kid. Fantasma has his own splashy Web site with photos of happy teenagers and pre-teens lounging at the beach.

A swap of personal data between the two leads to serious trouble. Soon Zack is living, then held captive, in San Diego with other abused and battered children exploited on a secret Web site aimed at pedophiles.

"Missing" players must crack word and number codes, use visual clues, and tap their computer and sleuthing smarts to help Zack's desperate father and detectives track down his abductor.

Visually lively and smart, the game engages problem-solving skills and appeals to girls and boys alike.

"Do we think these kids are there willingly?" Dickerson asked Nick Jaech and Evan Huegli, students at James D. Zellerbach Elementary School. He pointed out welts and bruises in the Web site photos indicating assault and abuse.

Nick and Evan were among the first to track down the suspect. But Nick later wondered aloud if anyone his age would really pose for a racy photo as one "victim" had.

"I would like to agree with you," Dickerson told the class during one of many discussion breaks built into the game. But sex slavery rings, drug deaths, even murders are outcomes police have come to expect.

"You need to understand, boys and girls, these kids never go home," he said.

Sherry Keene, Zellerbach school counselor, believes the training is right on.

"This is such a serious thing. I have kids coming and talking to me, having a computer in their room, unsupervised, getting into chat rooms," she said.

At the sixth-grade level, the lure of gossip and personal feedback is overwhelming, she noted.

The training is one part of the solution. Building trust between children and parents, however, is critical to prevention.

Studies show a majority of children exposed to threats never tell parents, for fear of losing their Internet privileges. Establishing trust and setting clear rules, in part so parents don't overreact, are top goals of the training, Dickerson said.

Home approval is needed for all Camas students taking the training. Counselor Keene said very few parents had opted out.

Another community briefing is planned before training for Skyridge students begins.

The Zellerbach pupils stayed attentive through the training.

"It was educational and fun, which is very rare these days," 11-year-old Alec Maier said matter-of-factly. "It was the best interactive thing I've done."

Kyle Erwin, 12, said, "Think twice when you're on the Internet." Chimed in Naseem Zarafshan, age 10, "You gotta be careful what you do."

HOWARD BUCK writes about schools and education. Reach him at 360-759-8015, or e-mail howard.buck@columbian.com.

Tips for keeping children safe from Internet predators

Parents: Monitor children's Internet use. Do not allow unsupervised chat room access or Web cam use. Better yet, deny all access in bedrooms. Draft an Internet safety plan that includes rules for handling sexually explicit or other suspicious contacts, and stick to it.

Children: Sign and follow the safety plan. When suspicious contacts are received, take the following steps: Turn off the computer and notify a parent or an adult. If appropriate, notify police, who might be able to trace the offender through computer files.

All users: Never submit private information, such as full name, address, name or address of school, birth date or Social Security data, without being certain of the recipient's identity. Save suspicious e-mails for police, when appropriate.


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