PANAMA CITY, Fla. — The conversation started innocently enough.
Panama City Beach police Lt. J.R. Talamantez, posing as a 13-year-old girl named Tiffany, logged onto Omegle, a website that connects two strangers anonymously and at random to talk or video chat. The website bills itself as “a great place to meet friends,” but Talamantez wasn’t looking for friends. He wanted to show Bay District School Board members, district staff and principals of the district’s 37 schools how easy it is to encounter and engage online with sexual predators.
After entering “kids” as an interest for Tiffany, Talamantez and the audience dove in. And it didn’t take long.
The first person they connected with said his name was Nick. He said he was from North Carolina. After asking how old Tiffany was, he said he was 18, asking “is that okay?” Tiffany replied it was fine.
“Well, I bet you’re very pretty, Tiffany,” he wrote back.
“What you’re going to see here is the precursor to grooming,” Talamantez explained, leaving the chat. “These guys will say all the right things at the right time. Your kids are going to continue that conversation.”
But, for school board members and district staff to truly understand the danger children were facing on the internet, the types of people who at times have unmonitored and unfiltered access to them, Talamantez had to take them deeper. So he switched to the video chat room.
Most of the adults in the room already knew what was coming, but seeing it, and seeing it so quickly, provoked a reaction from just about all of them. With a piece of paper over his webcam so the people they were chatting with couldn’t see him, Talamantez connected with strangers, one after the other, to the same result — men, mostly naked, usually touching themselves in a graphic manner. Sometimes they started right away. Sometimes they waited until after Talamantez said he was 13 years old.
“I told him I’m 13 and he’s still here,” Talamantez said. “There is no code to get in here. This is a regular, dot-com website.”
Talamantez has given his presentation, Parents Against Predators, at several schools in the district, aimed mostly at arming parents with tools to protect their children from online predators, a task that is growing monumentally more difficult as new, anonymous social media sites and phone applications are launching and gaining steam in schools. Tuesday’s workshop, which also tackled cyberbullying and drug use, was meant to loop in educators on what they need to look out for, and what their students often are subjected to in their digital lives.
“Your kids? There’s two of them. The one you see in front of you and the one that lives in here,” Talamantez stated, holding up his phone. “The person in here, you don’t know.”
Pointing district staff to a website, safesmartsocial.com, Talamantez recommended educators familiarize themselves with different apps, what they look like and what they do. The apps are color-coded based on how safe they are for children and teenagers. Some, including Facebook and Instagram, were given the green go-ahead, because they can have parental locks and filters and can be monitored. Others, such as AfterSchool, with an icon that looks like a tiger with sunglasses and connects users to an anonymous chat room specifically for the user’s middle or high school, earn a red rating. And still other apps, such as Private Photo (Calculator, are disguised as something as pedestrian as a calculator, but are actually a secret storage file for photos and messages.
In addition to potentially exposing students to online predators, Talamantez said many of the apps also leave them open to online bullying. Apps like Sarahah, which lets users anonymously text other people in their address book with the caveat that the receiver can’t respond, played heavily in the recent suicide of Surfside Middle School student Gabriella Green, Talamantez said.
“The things I’ve seen that our kids are saying, it breaks my heart,” he said. “The kids won’t delete it, because then they can’t use it. We can’t make the claim, ‘Oh, just don’t look at it.’ It goes way deeper than that.”
The school board later heard a presentation from Lt. Kevin Francis, head of narcotics for the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, that normally is geared toward high school students to warn them about the dangers of drugs most commonly seen in the area and the consequences, both physical and criminal, of using them.
Jerry Tabatt with CrimeStoppers and Lt. Myron Guilford, who oversees the school resource deputies in Bay District Schools, also gave a presentation about bullying that Tabatt is hoping to take to all the middle and high schools this year, as well as some elementary schools. He said the district shares with students an anonymous CrimeStoppers tip line they can use to report bullying or other incidents, and those tips usually will make their way back to the appropriate SRD within about 30 seconds. He said currently, there about 42 apps largely used in schools that allow students to message each other anonymously.
“We need to figure out ways together that we can stop these apps from harming these kids,” Tabatt said.
Talamantez and Tabatt will lead a Parents Against Predators and Cyberbullying seminar at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at Majestic Beach Resort, 10901 Front Beach Road, Panama City Beach, which both parents and children are encouraged to attend.
Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, http://www.newsherald.com