Officer educates Pekin on Internet crimes
PACKWOOD – The Internet connects billions of people around the world, who use it to connect with relatives on the other side of the globe and to share untold videos, pictures and emails.
Unfortunately, the Internet has a dark side as well, one in which sexual predators exploit young children through blackmail and threats of violence. This side of the Internet was the focus of several meetings at Pekin Community Schools Tuesday. Joe Schmitz of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force met with students, teachers and parents to talk about how to stay safe when surfing the web.
Schmitz works with the Cedar Rapids Police Department and has been an officer for 23 years. He described himself as a “Type A” personality who, early in his law enforcement career, was singularly focused on locking up as many bad guys as he could find. Before long, he noticed that reducing crime was not so simple. Many of the suspects he arrested were released from prison only to continue their life of crime. Furthermore, putting away the perpetrators does nothing to alleviate the pain of the victims.
“I thought, ‘If crime is so hard to fix, why don’t we try to prevent it before it starts?’” Schmitz told a group of mostly Pekin parents and some students Tuesday night.
Tuesday night’s meeting touched on a number of topics such as anonymous chatrooms, “sexting,” and cyberbullying. Schmitz advised parents to monitor their children’s behavior on the Internet, particularly if they are talking to complete strangers. He mentioned that a website called “Omegle” is a popular chatroom where two strangers can send each other messages.
Pekin K-12 school counselor Tim Bartels and other faculty tried out Omegle earlier in the day, after Schmitz warned them that it was not a site appropriate for children despite its popularity. At the meeting Tuesday, Bartels told the group he was amazed at the number of sexual solicitations he received when he pretended to be a young girl.
Schmitz even performed a live demonstration in front of the parents so they could see with their own eyes the danger of anonymous chatrooms. Schmitz started a chat in which he claimed to be a 14-year-old girl, and the person on the other end identified himself as a 19-year-old and asked if “she” was in the mood for sex. Schmitz responded, “No, cop,” which promptly ended the chat. Schmitz said that kind of exchange is depressingly common.
“More than one in 10 kids will be approached by an online pedophile by age 18,” he said.
Schmitz showed a map indicating there are 22 sex offenders in Jefferson County. He once asked a sex offender why he was attracted to young children, and why he couldn’t change so he ceased being attracted to them. The sex offender said it would be like asking Schmitz to stop being attracted to his wife. Schmitz said that didn’t excuse the man’s behavior, but it did shed light on why rehabilitating sex offenders is such a tall task.
In another part of the program, Schmitz said teenagers are surprisingly willing to send sexually explicit texts and even naked pictures of themselves. He said 22 percent of teenage girls and 18 percent of teenage boys have sent nude photos of themselves to other people. Students at Pekin told him earlier in the day that they knew of classmates who had done that and whose photos had circulated among many people. Schmitz said it cannot be stressed enough to young people that once they send a photo over the Internet, it cannot be taken back.
To prevent his own children from misbehaving online, Schmitz knows their usernames and passwords, and tells his kids he can ask to see their computers or cell phones whenever he wants. If they don’t consent, he takes them away. He said he had to take away his son’s laptop once because his son wouldn’t agree to let him look at it.
“I tell my kids, ‘I’m trying to catch someone else doing something bad, not you,’” he said.
Bartels said Pekin was the only school in southeast Iowa to host someone from the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and that it was an honor to be selected by the task force.
“The goal in having [Schmitz] come was to educate our students, staff, and parents about the real dangers that lurk online,” Bartels wrote in an email. “We like to believe that things like the topics addressed can’t happen in rural Iowa and that, unfortunately, isn’t true anymore. Everyone is reachable now.”
This year, the Pekin Community School District began a student leadership group named PAK, which stands for Protecting All Kids. The program is a way for teens to look out for their peers to keep them safe.