A program to keep Carroll County students safer in cyberspace has begun to take shape, initiated by the state's attorney's office working with school and law-enforcement officials.
This year in Carroll, eight men from Virginia and other counties in Maryland have been arrested on charges that they traveled to meet fictitious 13-year-old girls whom they propositioned for sexual acts in Internet chat rooms. They instead met Cpl. Brad Brown, a Carroll sheriff's deputy assigned to the state police Computer Crimes Unit's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Brown will give a presentation on how to protect children online at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Westminster High School auditorium.
"I'd be happy if 100 people show up. That would be great," said Brown, who plans to give about a 20-minute talk and answer questions.
It was his task force that alerted Assistant State's Attorneys Natasha M. Byus and Amy L. Blank, of the county's Child Abuse-Sexual Assault unit, to a weeklong training program for prosecutors from around the nation provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.
They returned inspired to start a local program, Blank said. It seemed a logical step for the two, who are prosecuting the cases brought by the task force.
"I thought, 'Oh gosh, Carroll County needs to know about this,' " said Blank, a prosecutor since 2000 who volunteered in the CASA unit while in high school and college. "I wanted to prosecute these cases."
In the month since she attended the program, Blank said she has found a wealth of material from California to Massachusetts, and sought her bosses' permission to begin a local program. "I more or less went to them and said, 'Can I do this?' "
"What could possibly be more important than the protection of our youth from cyber-stalkers and harmful materials currently available on the Internet?" Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes asked.
At a meeting Thursday with a school official, the prosecutors talked about a catchy name for the program and made plans for the first phase: a brochure and a Web site before the new year, with an art contest for students to create a mascot.
By the fall of 2003 and the new school year, she said, they plan to have a program to present at every grade level, probably with skits. They hope also to work with the public library, where many children - and at least one of the accused in Baltimore - use the computers.
"We are targeting first the elementary and middle schools," Blank said of the program. "It has to be catchy and creative enough to get their attention."
"The reality is, younger and younger kids are getting on these Web sites and they feel safe and protected in their own little homes, writing messages to people they don't know, writing messages and building relationships that can be dangerous," said Barry D. Gelsinger, the Carroll schools' assistant superintendent of instruction. "So if we can do anything in collaboration with the state's attorney's office and law enforcement to promote greater safety for our students, that's definitely something we want to do."
"I think that's a great idea," said Claire Kwiatkowski, president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs, when told of the program being planned.
"We monitor, limit the amount of access," she said of her three children's computer use. "I think we're pretty strict."
"It is scary that so many predators are out there ready to pounce on our kids," Kwiatkowski said.
While the Carroll court cases involve fictitious victims, one of the eight accused also has been charged with second-degree rape of a teen-age Charles County girl whom he met online, police and prosecutors said. No such incidents have been reported in Carroll, they said.
Brown said warning signs for parents include children racing home to the computer and spending hours online, hiding the screen from view. He said the computer should be in a public area such as the living room, not in a child's bedroom.
Other measures include software that tracks the Web sites children visit, limit the amount of time children spend online or block subject matter such as pornography.
But Brown cautioned, "There is no foolproof software to protect your children. The best form of protection is to have parental supervision while the child is online."