A Central Texas school district is working alongside local, state, and federal agencies in an investigation launched after underage students found themselves blackmailed on Snapchat by a stranger seeking sexually explicit photos.
The case was complicated by the 21st Century wrinkle that these unidentified Johnson City Independent School District students already posted nude and sexually provocative selfies on the popular cell phone image messaging system. The minors believed they only shared these pictures among friends but, in reality, they made themselves much easier targets for an alleged online predator to find them.
Last week, Johnson City ISD Superintendent Richard Kolek sent a letter to parents advising them that the Blanco County Sheriff’s Office contacted him about an “active” investigation into the “misuse of the social networking app Snapchat by individuals to solicit inappropriate photos of minors.”
He stated that a number of Johnson City ISD students were involved in this probe and it also included “others” outside the school district “due to the widespread nature of social media.” Kolek told families that Child Protective Services (CPS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were assisting Blanco County sheriffs with the case.
“It is imperative that students and parents understand the dangers and legal ramifications of inappropriate use of social media,” wrote Kolek.
He wanted Johnson City ISD families to get the message about the possible “dangers of Snapchat and other social media avenues” before Spring Break, which begins next week.
On Tuesday, Kolek brought in Cindy Keele, a CPS investigator, to conduct presentations for students in the district’s middle and high schools. She confirmed to KXAN that the case involves minors distributing pornography to each other as well as a stranger that students believed was a teenager contacting them. Authorities suspect this might be an adult.
Then, on Wednesday night, Kolek invited the FBI to present information on the “predator” aspect of social media and the potential consequences for the “victim” using actual case studies to illustrate the often harmful realities social media may present when talking to strangers. FBI Special Agent Rex Miller spoke to around 200 concerned school district parents.
Miller, who works in the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children Unit, told KXAN that parents often have no idea what their children do online and with whom they communicate. “As parents, we’ve got to take time to say to your son or daughter, ‘Hey, let me see your phone,'” he emphasized.
“We’re seeing kids as young as eight or nine producing very graphic images of child pornography,” said Miller. He clarified that the FBI is acting in a supporting role on forensics in the case.
Kolek told KXAN the district plans to resolve the matter, although he realizes this issue is not “unique” to Johnson City ISD but “is out there in every school district and social media around the world.” He recommended students report any inappropriate online behavior to a parent, teacher or, even, on the Johnson City ISD anonymous tip line.
The Texas Education Agency offers internet safety links for students and parents to better understand the uncharted territory of online chatting and its hidden dangers. The agency also provides links to internet safety organizations and resources addressing issues including cyberbullying, online privacy, and security.
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