Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Montgomery County prosecutors teach students lessons in thwarting Internet predators

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John J. McCarthy

March 9, 2008 7:12 PM

One hundred fifty pairs of eyes watch as Montgomery County State’s Attorney John J. McCarthy flashes a MySpace profile picture of a girl in her high school cheerleading uniform. She is smiling and the word “Vikings” is emblazoned across her chest.

She has only revealed her hometown on her Web page, but her photo broadcasts to the world she goes to a school with the Vikings as its mascot, McCarthy tells the crowd.

And that’s all a predator would need to know to find her.

The message hits close to home for this group, sixth through eighth graders at the St. Peter’s School in Olney. McCarthy explains how little time — less than 20 minutes — it can take someone to find out the full name, family members’ names, home address, phone number, likely school and other personal information about a girl whose valid e-mail address is available in her chat profile.

“The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it can get you into trouble with the most innocuous kinds of information,” McCarthy said.

Deborah A. Armstrong, chief of the Internet Crimes Against Children/Sex Offender Registry Unit, looked on from the back of the school’s multipurpose room. She said the prosecutor’s office does not aim to scare kids with their presentations about safe practices on the Internet, but does want to educate impressionable youths about the realities of being online.

“Some of this stuff is kind of scary, but I don’t think kids go home having bad dreams about it,” the senior assistant prosecutor said.

Prevention, not prosecution

The presentation, which McCarthy has presented a number of times in recent months at schools throughout the county, is based on audio-visual educational material from NetSmartz, an educational arm of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

It aims to show kids how information about them can easily be obtained on the Internet with only a few clues to start with. It also recommends actions to take if they are uncomfortable with something — or someone — they encounter online.

Since McCarthy created the Internet prosecution unit a year ago this month, he has wanted it to be more than just an arm of the law.

“When I was campaigning for this job [in 2006], one of the things I kept hearing from parents was concerns about what their kids were exposed to on the Internet,” McCarthy said in an earlier interview.

“We can prosecute those cases when they come up, but we’re also really trying to incorporate in a much more active fashion some preventative measures that can be taken by the children and parents themselves.”

To that end, McCarthy has been hitting schools several times a month all over the county, from Germantown to Silver Spring, to give students a one-hour session on what could be lurking in cyberspace. Separate, “age-appropriate” presentations are designed for elementary, middle and high school students.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has a similar, statewide program called “C.L.I.C.K.S.,” or Community Leadership in Cyber Knowledge and Safety, which offers classes designed for law enforcement, educators and community leaders.

McCarthy’s approach, however, entails a larger plan. Informally dubbed the “Internet Safety Project,” it includes a team of 15 to 20 members who hope to make Internet education a regular part of the county’s school curriculum by the next school year.

Drawn from the state’s attorney’s office, county school officials and the police department (which created its own cybercrimes unit in November 2006), team members have met for the past few months to outline an approach to the curriculum and work on designing education packages appropriate for each grade.

The materials will be provided by nonprofits NetSmartz and i-SAFE Inc., a federally funded Internet education foundation that also offers community-outreach tools for children and parents.

Elementary school counselors, who have completed the Internet safety training, would likely be the first distributors of the curriculum next year, said Shelley Johnson, county director of career and technology education and online learning and co-chair (with Armstrong) of the Internet Safety Project.

“This really caught their attention because they know the world the kids live in,” Johnson said. “And they said if nobody at home is talking about it, then kids especially need that kind of guidance at school.”

The teachers are still working on how the curriculum should be implemented in the higher grades, Johnson added.

‘It’s everywhere’

The committee also plans to reach out to parents by using real-life examples from Montgomery County.

“If that were told, it would just really hit home that it’s not just happening in New York City or Los Angeles, it’s everywhere,” Johnson said last week.

Nationally, one in seven people between the ages of 10 and 17 receive some kind of sexual solicitation online, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. About a third of the same age group had an unwanted exposure to sexual material, such as pictures of naked people.

Although similar statistics from the Maryland State Police are not readily available, McCarthy said last month that one in five minors in Montgomery County reported he or she had been solicited online for sex and one in 11 has been victimized by cyber bullying — when someone is harassed, threatened or embarrassed on the Web. A Pew Internet survey last summer reported one in three teens nationwide said they had experienced cyber bullying.

Cyber bullying made national news last fall when a Missouri teen committed suicide after a boy she met and knew only on the social networking site MySpace abruptly rejected her. The “boy,” it turned out, never actually existed — he was created by the mother of a friend who had, had a falling-out with the victim.

Cyber bullying is not illegal in most states, although the Maryland General Assembly is considering a bill this year that would require the State Board of Education to prohibit it and call for school officials to set new standards for investigating complaints and disciplining students.

While Armstrong and McCarthy call the Missouri case an extreme example, it points to why kids and teens should be educated about the realities of people who present false identities on the Web.


The office’s lessons about the Internet for elementary school children are simple: don’t put personal information (such as hometown, school and last name) where anyone can access it; and know where to turn for help when afraid.

At Stonegate Elementary School in Silver Spring last month, about 100 students watched an interactive NetSmartz video featuring two cartoon characters who talked about viruses, spam and “Follow You Fiona” — someone who uses a false identity online to befriend others.

“That may be the most important lesson you learn today,” McCarthy told them. “You never know who you’re dealing with on the Internet.”

For older students, the material is more pointed. The Olney students last month also watched a video about a girl who shared her e-mail password with her best friend. The friend then gave it away to the “cool” girls in school to get them to like her and, in turn, they used the e-mail account to send sexually implicit messages to boys at school.

During the question-and-answer session after the video, one student raised his hand to say someone had logged into his account with his password and then used it to “cuss people out” in online chat rooms.

“May I say, this is going to happen if you share your passwords,” McCarthy warned.

Fighting on all fronts

As she watched the presentation, Armstrong, who is the only county prosecutor in the Internet crimes unit, added she had just secured her first felony conviction for distributing pornography on the Internet. The offender, a Silver Spring man whose wife was expecting a baby, was caught distributing pornography to an Arizona woman in an attempt to get her to send him sexually explicit photos of her 11-year-old daughter.

The felony crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Sentencing is scheduled for this month.

Earlier in February, Armstrong testified before the House Judiciary Committee on a bill that would change the offense of possessing child pornography from a misdemeanor to a felony. If passed, it would place a mandatory minimum sentence of two years for the first conviction and five years for subsequent ones.

Current law holds two years as the maximum sentence for possession.

The reception from the committee was “tepid,” she said, and she expressed her frustration that legislation in this subject area had been introduced for nearly 10 years straight with seemingly no progress toward passage.

In another case Armstrong recently prosecuted, the defendant, a male in his 20s, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of possession but was not given any jail time.

“The defense attorney’s argument was that if the legislature thought it was an important enough crime, it would have made it a bigger penalty,” she said. “And that’s part of the problem … People who possess child pornography are [statistically] more likely to be offenders themselves and right now the penalty has no teeth. It’s on par with possession of marijuana.”

For now, the prosecutors just hope that efforts toward education can provide children more protection and help mitigate the damage.

“The Internet is like Halloween — everybody has a mask on,” said McCarthy. “We’re just trying to teach these kids in a very general way how to keep the lines of communication open between them and the people they trust.”

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