Police go online to keep kids safe
The Bexley detective was teaching sixth-graders about Internet safety when she let them in on a secret. "I have my own Facebook page," said Dawn Overly, who investigates cases involving juveniles. "And it has
information on my profile, and what I say about myself is all lies. There's not even a picture of myself on there."
Instead, her profile image is two girls running on a beach. But 50 Bexley teens have welcomed her friend requests knowing nothing but the information she has posted, Overly said.
The lesson was designed to show the Maryland Avenue Elementary students how easily online predators can invade their territory, but her confession revealed more than that. Increasingly, Overly and other police
officers nationwide are using the Internet to keep an eye on students. "If we're hearing rumors of something big happening, sometimes it is easier to check online," said Kevin Quinn, an Arizona police officer who is
spokesman for the National Association of School Resource Officers. "Chances are, if people are not talking about it online, then it's not true. It's just one more tool that we use to keep our schools safe."
He said that by plugging into social-networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace, police officers have been able to see pictures of teens drinking alcohol, conversations about drug use and threats teens
make toward one another. "Five years ago, we were just talking to kids in the lunchroom all day long," Quinn said. "Now we're a little bit more high-tech. You have to go where the kids are."
Police say they have little time to monitor pages, so they often are searching for information based on complaints. Figuring out the fake profiles from the real ones is a challenge, though. "You don't tell the difference,"
said New Albany Police Officer Joel Strahler, who is based at the suburb's high school. He said he investigated a case in which an adult was sending sexually oriented messages to teens. They were traced to a fake
Strahler, who has cultivated a cyberbeat for several years, said students have become savvier to his presence online. "I've had my own accounts flagged for being a cop," he said. "They'll pick up on that, so I don't
really advertise that we monitor them, but they know we do."
Despite the challenges, officers say they have been able to solve crimes with incriminating information posted online. "Sometimes that type of information is posted -- somebody witnessing a crime and hearing about
the person involved," Whitehall Police Sgt. Randy Snider said. "They will be talking about so-and-so, and they stole a phone; and anything like that is a lead, and people report to us."
Pickerington Central High School senior Kera Wolley, 17, said she thinks police should be patrolling Facebook and MySpace. "It seems like a public place to cause problems," she said.