School’s in session and that means members of the Lake Superior Forensic Technology and Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force will be taking enforcement on the road more often.
“We seem to be going to schools on a weekly basis during the school year,” said Detective Ed Gallagher with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s real bad during the school year because the kids are together and more susceptible to peer pressure.”
The task force covers Douglas County, Superior, Duluth and St. Louis County. It responds to online threats from cyberbullying and sexting (sending nude pictures) to child enticement.
“Middle schoolers are the worst offenders,” Gallagher said, and the most common victims. High school students come in second.
One of the most common places children are getting into trouble online is in a bedroom or restroom.
“Private spaces are where the problems start,” and social media is the most-used platform, Gallagher said.
Members of the task force have been presenting information on cyber threats to parents at Northwestern Middle School for years, but attendance has been dwindling. Last week, Gallagher brought the information directly to NMS students. Parents could have their children opt out of the presentation; none did.
“I’m a parent of two students at the middle school,” NMS counselor Erika Kaufman said. “I felt it was stuff students needed to know.”
Parent Jenny Pichler contacted the school to thank them for the presentation.
“Kylee and I talked about this last night and it was great to have an open conversation that we continue to talk with our kids about,” she said in an email. “Hearing this information from more than just their parents really seems to help reiterate the importance of making good clean decisions on their devices.”
Gallagher reminded students that every post, tweet and picture they send is forever.
“Everything we do online is saved somewhere,” Gallagher said. “You can’t get rid of it. Once you do it, there’s no taking it back.”
And it spreads. Take sexting, which is a growing issue nationwide. A nude picture sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend gets shared with one friend, then another.
“That’s become a huge problem,” Gallagher said. “So when you go to school to confiscate this stuff, we’re talking to one kid and before we leave, we’re talking to 20 kids.”
It can leave the region in minutes.
“I might start something in Superior, Wisconsin, but I’ve had cases branch out to the state of Washington, Oregon, Texas,” Gallagher said.
Whoever takes a picture of a minor and hits send just created child pornography, no matter what age they are. Anyone with the picture on their phone, tablet or computer is in possession of child pornography. Once it’s sent, all law enforcement can do is try to curb how far it spreads.
Gallagher’s cybersafety presentation was a proactive approach to a national issue, said Principal Tanya Krieg.
“It really is a dialog and a conversation and it's an educational tool for them,” Krieg said.
Over and over, Gallagher stressed the importance of thinking before hitting send.
“The goal is to try to stop bad things from happening, to try to stop you from being a victim, to try to stop that picture from circulating,” he said. “The goal is to educate you … to help you.”
The examples he used were real. And they’re happening in the Northland. The day Gallagher wrapped up his presentations at NMS, the Duluth Police Department announced they’d arrested a Duluth man for allegedly soliciting explicit photographs from two underage girls, using threats of "revenge porn" to coerce sex from one of the victims.
Gallagher also cautioned students to be careful what kind of personal information they post online, whether it be what school they go to or their favorite hobbies. Those are things predators can use to target kids, he said.
Visit netsmartz.org for tips on staying safe online. To report a cyber crime against a child, call 911, report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Cyber Tipline at report.cybertip.org or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-843-5678.