Tisbury School students and parents learn about cyber-awareness

Patrolman Scott Ogden serves as the school resource officer at the Tisbury School. — Photo by Janet Hefler

As the Cape and Islands Assistant District Attorney (DA) for Juvenile Court, Eileen Moriarty deals with many children and teens who had no idea that some of their emails or text messages could land them in court. In an effort to help educate children and parents about cyber communications, Ms. Moriarty and a team participate in Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe’s bullying prevention community outreach program, I.S.W.M. (It Starts With Me).

On Monday, October 7, Ms. Moriarty and Community Outreach coordinators Deb Martin and Bill Burke made a trip from their offices in Barnstable to Tisbury School, where they spent the afternoon talking with students in grades 5–8 about Internet use, cyberbullying, and social networking. They followed up with another presentation at 5:30 pm that evening in the school library for parents, to summarize what they told students and what students told them, and to answer questions.

“As I told the kids today, they know a lot more about this, in general, than we do,” Principal John Custer said, in welcoming the 14 parents who attended. “So the more we can learn as parents, the better off we’ll be.”

Mr. Custer said the school was fortunate to benefit from the DA office’s program for the second year in a row, thanks to school resource officer Scott Ogden, a Tisbury Police Department patrolman.

The outreach team made separate presentations for grades 5–6 and grades 7–8. Mr. Burke said the two sessions were intended to make students aware of the responsibility that comes along with digital communication.

“Every school we go into, it’s about 97 percent of the students I would say, have a cell phone, or if not that, a tablet, an iPad, a home computer, an Xbox 360; all those things can communicate with people,” he said. “So we try to tell them how they can stay out of trouble. We don’t want them to end up before Eileen, the juvenile prosecutor. We figure if we make them aware of it now, she won’t have to deal with them and Scott won’t have to deal with them when they get a little older.”

Ms. Moriarty said it was amazing to see every student put up his or her hand when asked during the presentations if they had either a smart phone, cell phone, or some kind of Internet-connected device.

Think before you send

“We got the message to them that whoever gave them the phone or devices never intended for them to get into trouble,” she said. “The District Attorney feels the prevention side is important, and that it’s important that kids know, because there is a list of crimes that kids have been charged with, across the Cape and Islands, and that they could be committing.”

Behaviors may cross the legal line and results in charges under Massachusetts General Laws for annoying phone calls, stalking, criminal harassment, unauthorized access to a computer system, use of someone’s personal identification, threats, violation of restraining order, and violation of civil rights, and possession and/or dissemination of child pornography.

As one example, Ms. Moriarty said some teens and children who start out as the victims of bullying text messages or emails are surprised to learn that if they retaliate by sending a series of similar messages back, they could be charged with criminal harassment.

Ms. Moriarty said she and the team also discussed how misunderstandings about a text or email can occur because the recipient can’t see the sender’s facial expressions or hear the inflection in their voice.

“We tell kids not to ever send something out you wouldn’t want to see on a billboard,” Ms. Moriarty said. “Research shows that kids are much bolder online and say things they wouldn’t normally say because of the anonymity. We talk about the ‘Golden Rule’ [treat others as you would like to be treated] and tell them the same thing applies online. It’s important for parents to reinforce that.”

Ms. Moriarty warned parents not to allow their children to visit the website Ask.FM, which has become an issue in all the schools she has visited.

As Ms. Martin explained, it is a Latvia-based social networking website where users ask each other questions, with the option of anonymity. She said it was associated with cyberbullying in two middle schools on the Cape last summer.

“There’s nothing good to come of it,” Ms. Moriarty said. “It’s something you shouldn’t allow your kids to go on. There have been several suicides attributed to bullying on it.”

Cyber-bullying continues to have serious consequences, as evidenced in news headlines last week. Police in Florida arrested two teens for their role in harassing another girl online, who committed suicide.

Serious consequences

Ms. Martin said the presentation for older students in grades 7–8 included discussion about “sexting,” the act of sending of sexually explicit photos, images, text messages, or emails by using a cell phone or other mobile device.

“We talked about how once you send something like that out, you lose control of it, whether it’s a text or an image,” she said. “If you’re under 18 years old, a sexually explicit photo is considered child pornography, whether it’s possession or dissemination. If someone gets a photo from a girlfriend or boyfriend, and they break up and send it to someone else, and then that person sends it out to someone else, it could go to a huge amount of people.”

“And it is a crime if they take a pictures of themselves in a state of undress, in a sexually exposed type of behavior,” Ms. Moriarty told the parents. “Kids don’t realize it and parents don’t realize it. The term is ‘self-produced child pornography.’ This is a conversation to have at home, because we do see kids doing this. Tell your child if you receive a photo like that, you need to let someone know and won’t get in trouble for telling.”

School committee member Colleen McAndrews asked what parents should do if their child receives such a photo.

“You call the police,” Ms. Moriarty said. “It’s going to open up an investigation.”

Mr. Burke, a retired state trooper, said it is important to find out who’s involved, who took the photo, and why the subject was put in that situation.

Mr. Custer said he has received calls from parents asking for advice about questionable photos and recommended they contact the Tisbury Police.

Mr. Ogden added that students and parents can always come to him. “We’re not looking to charge anybody; we can help,” he said. “We don’t want a kid in court unless it’s the last resort. We want to get to the source of the matter.”

Internet safety

The presentations for students also included tips on Internet safety. Ms. Moriarty said she reminded kids that nothing on the Internet is private and to think twice about what personal information they include on social networking sites.

She advised parents to check to make sure their children’s cell phones or electronic devices have the most restricted privacy settings and to turn off or get rid of global-positioning system components that show where they are.

“We asked seventh and eighth graders, how many friends do you have on Facebook, and the high number was 250 for one kid,” Mr. Burke said. “So Eileen said okay, 250 friends, and you give that information out, and they have 250 friends. That adds up to 62,500. Why would you want that many people knowing your business?”

Ms. Martin said parents should also be mindful of their children’s “digital footprint” and look at what they post on social network sites to make sure there is nothing negative that a prospective college or potential employer might see.

Ms. Moriarty advised that one of the best things parents can do is separate their children from their electronic devices at night.

“We asked how many kids have been on their devices after their parents think they’re asleep, and we still had hands up when we got to 2 am,” she said. “Those phones, those devices shouldn’t be in their bedrooms at night. They should be charged in the kitchen or in your room, some place where your children are disconnected from them. And although there are different rules for adults, try to have a time when everybody in the house is separated from their phone at some point.”

Ms. Moriarty, Mr. Burke, and Ms. Martin make their presentation available free of charge to any school that requests it, as a public service provided by the DA’s office. Officer Ogden said he heard about the program while attending a training they hosted for school resource officers at Cape Cod Community College two summers ago.

“I asked Ms. Moriarty if she would ever consider bringing the program to us ‘over the pond,'” he said with a laugh. “She said yes, and came with the team to Tisbury School last year.”

Officer Ogden credited his boss, Police Chief Dan Hanavan, along with Mr. Custer and associate principal Sean Mulvey, with being very supportive of his efforts to bring the program to Tisbury School.

“I think it’s impressive that District Attorney O’Keefe is taking such a pro-active role in fighting bullying and talking about cyber-communication issues,” Officer Odgen added.