Naugatuck Police Detective Ron Blanchard asked a group of freshmen on Wednesday how many of them use cell phones to post pictures to Facebook.
Several hands went up in the auditorium and some chatter and laughter shortly followed.
Then, Blanchard, a computer crimes investigator at the , turned the discussion toward an issue the nation grapples with on a daily basis: online predators. He directed his discussion to the high school girls, and warned them to be careful with regard to the types of pictures they post.
"You’re taking pictures with your smart phones and posting them on the Internet,” Blanchard said. “There are guys out there that are trolling the Internet looking for their next victim. They have ways of finding you just based on your pictures.”
This was just one of the many aspects touched upon during a forum discussion on sexting and proper online conduct at NHS. The event was organized by state Reps. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, and David K. Labriola, R-Oxford, and included commentary by local and state law enforcement, as well as a state prosecutor.
Blanchard told students that, because of modern technology, it’s possible to track the actual location in which a picture was taken from, using a phone’s geo-tracking capabilities.
“Within that picture, these guys that spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the computer can locate you precisely to your bedroom," he said.
The chatter in the room, by this point, had died down to a silence.
“You guys didn't know that, huh?” he asked.
The 14-year-old students gave no response.
‘If you don’t know that person, don’t accept their friend request’
Sgt. Kevin Albanese, a member of the Connecticut State Police’s computer crimes unit, told freshmen about the a different way these predators try to get ahold of children: via social media.
“There are increasing amounts of people out there posing at 15/16 year old kids,” Alabanese said. "They’re people in their 30s and 40s who are targeting kids your age.”
They try to reach out to these children using fake Facebook profiles.
“If you don’t know that person, don’t accept their friend request,” he said.
In the age of ubiquitous social networking — through sites like Facebook and Twitter — and the fact that cell phones are the norm, the panel talked about all the dangers associated with misusing the technology.
“Society is kind of unfair to you right now because of the demands it places on you with the technology,” said Richard Colangelo, a Fairfield County-based prosecutor from the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. “It’s out there, we know that you have to use it.”
Twenty percent of teens ages 13-to-19 have sent nude or semi-nude photos, Colangelo said, and 39 percent of children send sexually explicit messages.
In 2010, Rebimbas introduced 'sexting' legislation in Connecticut. The law created a lesser punishment for minors between 13-and-18 who may knowingly possess and transmit any nude or semi-nude images through electronic communication. Prior to the bill, prosectors in some states had been charging teens with possession and distribution of a minor, meaning, if convicted, they would have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. Prosecutors still have the ability in Connecticut to determine whether the crime is so severe that it could be considered child pornography.
Rebimbas, an attorney, wanted the bill to create more awareness of sexing and gave the court ability to make people pay for their crimes.
Sexting is still a real dilemma in more ways than one.
Locally, Naugatuck police confirmed they are investigating an incident of sexting in the Naugatuck school system. But that's not the only school district in the state dealing with the issue.
Colangelo gave the example of a recent situation in Greenwich, where police there had to confiscate 35 phones from one 8th grade class and erase explicit images. It took 70 hours of investigative time to do this, he said.
In some ways, the exchange of sexually explicit material can delve into other criminal realms. Albanese told the teens in Naugatuck Wednesday a story about a 15-year-old Connecticut girl who was engagng in an inappropriate video chat with another individual.
Years later, when the girl was 21, a person contacted her and said he had a copy of the video and threatened to post it unless she gave him $500.
During a question-and-answer portion of the panel, one student mentioned that there was a person who reached out to him on Facebook by the name of “Mike Jiggyman.” The remark garnered a lot of laughter from the students, although this one freshman was adamant that it was “serious” because of the fact that “Mike Jiggyman” wanted him to send a note so “I can give you a Christmas present.”
“I swear to God this is a true story,” the student said.
Officer Charles “Chip” Schofield didn’t need any convincing. During the panel discussion, Schofield said he knows about Mike Jiggyman and he also knows that “several” of the high school students are friends with him.
“Why are you friends with him?” Schofield asked. “He’s a fictious person on Facebook.”
Schofield told the students if they ever get bizarre friend requests like that, they can always bring it to his attention.
And Colangelo reiterated the most important points about suspicious interactions via social media: the first important thing is to not respond, and the second important point is to report it to the proper authorities.