Billings Police Officer George Zorzakis began his talk on child safety by holding up a smart phone for his audience of elementary parents to see.
The most dangerous item most students carry in their pockets, purses or backpacks is a cell phone, Zorzakis told a dozen parents gathered for a PTA meeting last week. Every parent should hear what this middle school resource officer has to say: Online/cell phone crimes against kids happen right here in Montana, right here in Billings.
A 10-year-old Helena boy opened a YouTube account and ended up sending nude photos and videos of himself to a registered sex offender in Alabama. Now images of this child are on pornographers’ computers all over the world.
A 12-year-old Wyoming girl met a convicted sex offender online, took a bus to Billings where he picked her up and drove her to Missoula.
A Texas man recently was arrested when he came to Billings to pick up a local middle school girl who met him online.
None of these child victims knew they were communicating with child molesters. The online predators usually pose as children or teens, Zorzakis warned.
Using today’s technology also puts children at risk for other problems, the officer said. Cell phones are used to cheat on tests. Computers and smart phones are used to steal files. Kids may unknowingly infect their computers with spyware, spam and scams by sharing files. On the Internet, children may be exposed to indecent language and images. They may be subject to bullying and sexting — the sending of nude photos on phones.
Sending any nude or semi-nude images of a person under age 18 can be a violation of child pornography laws — even if the sender is under 18 or sending photos of herself.
Cyberspace has opened new ways for bullies to torment children and youth. In one recent case, a Billings middle school student’s face from one photo was pasted onto inappropriate images and sent to other students via cell phone.
“Before you allow your child to jump into technology, you need to sit down and set rules,” Zorkakis said.
For starters, he said, keep children’s computers in a common area where parents can observe their use and check your child’s cell phone every night.
“The kids have the technology, but they don’t have the maturity to deal with it,” said Tim West, who works for the Billings Police Department as commander of the Montana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “Parents need to step up and take control of this situation.”
Although Billings Police Department has been a leader in the ICAC, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t been an active participant. We call on Sheriff Mike Linder to see that his department becomes a full, active partner. Internet crimes don’t stop at the city limits.
School District 2 has policies against bullying, harassment and criminal activity involving students, but it doesn’t have a district cell phone policy, so rules vary from school to school. Because the majority of middle and high school students have cell phones and more elementary students are getting them, Billings Public Schools ought to have a consistent policy on their use during school time.
However, technology safety is first a parental responsibility. Children have access to the Internet 24/7, so schools can’t protect them most of the time. Parents, schools and local law enforcement must be partners in keeping children safe.