Earlier this year, a 15-year-old boy at South Whidbey High School was caught allegedly taking photos up girls’ skirts with a cell phone.
Around Christmastime last year, a 16-year-old Oak Harbor student wrote a message on Facebook, apparently as a prank, threatening to shoot up a dance at North Whidbey Middle School, according to court documents.
Last fall, a boy at Langley Middle School got into trouble and ended up facing a criminal charge after allegedly showing friends a photo of his genitals on a cell phone, according to court records.
“You guys are living on a billboard. Everything you do is broadcast to the world.”
Detective Ed Wallace,
Island County Sheriff’s Office
While technology has indubitably improved many aspects of modern life, it’s also making it easier for young people to get into trouble in ways unimaginable just decades ago.
To educate students about the dangers and risks posed by inappropriate use of technology, Detective Ed Wallace with the Island County Sheriff’s Office has teamed up with Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, or CADA, over the past six years to take the message to the classroom.
On Monday, Wallace — the department’s forensic computer examiner — gave an eye-opening talk to a group of freshman and sophomores at South Whidbey High School.
“Everything you do on the Internet — and I mean everything — leaves behind a trail of bread crumbs,” he said.
Wallace’s computer-assisted discussion touched on a wide range of subjects, including cyberstalking, cyberbullying, social media, online sexual predator, sexting and child pornography.
His talk fits into a larger presentation given by CADA educator Casey Scott-Mitchell, who covers dating safety and similar issues. Wallace’s talk drives home two key messages.
First, there’s the permanence of data, whether it’s a browser history or images downloaded to a social media service.
Second, he argues that the Internet is not an anonymous space.
“You guys are living on a billboard,” he said. “Everything you do is broadcast to the world.”
Wallace emphasized that he’s not trying to tell students to stay off the Internet, which is a limitless resource. But, he said, he wants to give everyone the candid facts about the real consequences of misusing technology.
Under the law, he explained, a person who is under 18 and takes a photo of him or herself naked is guilty of producing child pornography, which is a felony. If that person texts it to a friend, the recipient is in possession of child pornography — another felony.
“I see a lot of worried looks out there,” he said to the class.
Beyond the law, he said it’s a bad idea for teenagers to take sexually explicit photos of themselves for all sorts of other reasons.
Once an image ends up on the internet — which he referred to as “the wild” — it can never really be taken down.
He shared the story of a South Whidbey girl who sent a naked photo of herself to her boyfriend about 10 years ago. The relationship went sour and he sent the images to friends.
Someone posted one of those photos to a pornography website.
“To this day, I get notifications about once a year that it has shown up on a child porn site,” he said, referring to a federal program that maintains a database of all child pornography confiscated by law enforcement nationwide and tracks the images online.
The sheriff’s office alone deals with about five cases a year involving kids distributing compromising photos of kids, he said. He recently worked on a case in which someone downloaded a Photoshopped image of a student onto a porn site.
Wallace explained afterward that one of the things that most surprises students is that “clearing history” doesn’t really clear anything; he can reconstruct browser histories, deleted images and emails with a high degree of accuracy.
“Everything on your computer is never truly deleted,” he said.
He discussed the laws surrounding cyberstalking, explaining that Washington state provides the model for such laws across the nation. While the perpetrators may think they are anonymously harassing someone, it’s actually pretty easy to build a case against a perpetrator, he said.
Kids in other communities have killed themselves after being targeted by cyberbullies, he said. He promised that anyone who caused such a tragedy on the island will be prosecuted.
He warned kids that they simply can’t joke about threats to schools, teachers and other kids during a “post-Columbine era.”
“Imagine the surprised look on your face,” he said, “when my SWAT team shows up at your house and drags you out of bed at 2 in the morning.”
Wallace also focused on how kids can protect themselves online. He showed how easy it is for a child sexual predator to locate someone just from rather innocuous information that’s posted on Facebook.
He warned about people who might reach out to children online.
“You need to think about why someone who doesn’t know you all would be suddenly interested in talking with you,” Scott-Mitchell said, pointing to the show “Catfish,” which vividly shows how easily people can create fake identifies in cyberspace.
She said CADA and the sheriff’s office hopes to reach out to more parents about children and technology in the future; with the constant evolution of technology, many parents — and teachers — may need schooling on the subject too.
As for the boy accused of secretly videotaping up girls’ skirts, Wallace examined his cell phone and found hundreds of images that appeared to have been taken, without the girls’ knowledge, in school and a school bus, according to his police report.
During the analysis, he also discovered suspected child pornography that was downloaded from the Internet, the report states.
Prosecutors charged the boy in Island County Superior Court with voyeurism and a child pornography charge.