VICKSBURG — After the conviction last month of a Vicksburg man who had been using Facebook to meet and have sex with underage girls, administrators with area schools are looking for ways to keep the children safe.
On Sept. 20, Circuit Judge M. James Chaney sentenced the man to 40 years in prison for enticing a child to meet for sexual purposes, molestation and statutory rape.
He was arrested in February by Vicksburg police after a mother reported he had contacted her 13-year-old daughter on Facebook and asked the girl to have sex with him. In March, he was charged with statutory rape for having sex with a 15-year-old girl in another case, said Vicksburg Deputy Chief Bobby Stewart.
“Electronic devices must not be on,” said Mike Jones, dean of students at St. Aloysius High School in Vicksburg. “If we do catch them with the phone on, whether it goes off in class or we see a kid texting or using it, we take it up for the day.”
Jones said the school takes a phone or electronic device for two days after a second offense and for the rest of the school year for a third offense.
In the last decade, technological advances have made social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram readily accessible to any children who have smartphones.
While having a computer in a pocket provides access to a wealth of information, students also have the ability to put private information on the Web for anyone to search for and find.
Vicksburg police Sgt. Troy Kimble, who handles most of the department’s Internet-based crime, said his first concern is minors posting pictures of themselves and other personal information.
“If someone has intentions of doing something to hurt that child and they know what that child looks like, they can come to school and find him or her,” Kimble said. “That can be anything that gives some sort of identifying factors, such as the picture, an address or a phone number.”
Vicksburg Police Chief Walter Armstrong said the department’s juvenile enforcement officers and community liaisons have spoken with students about the dangers of social media.
Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said minors rarely think about the long-term implications of sharing information online.
“A lot of young people just can’t understand the concerns that family and law enforcement have when they post information that anybody has access to,” he said. “Once that information is out there, you can’t just bring it back.”
Pam Wilbanks is the headmaster of Porters Chapel Academy. When she took over in 2012, Wilbanks and staff implemented a new rule about phone usage.
“From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., which is the end of our school day, they can’t have them out,” she said. “I think before I became headmaster, they could use them sometime at break or lunch. We decided that we needed to have no phones out between 8 and 3.”
She said the policy was put in place to take a swipe at a number of issues such as student safety, bullying, cheating and other problems associated with the use of smartphones by minors.
She said the 3 p.m. cutoff was put in place for students involved in extracurricular activities.
“Some parents want them to have a cellphone if they’re going to practice after school; some of them want them to have one for after school,” she said.
In the classroom, hallways and cafeteria, the phones are required to be out of sight.
A 2012 Pew Study revealed that a majority of teenagers share personal information on Facebook and are sharing at a higher rate than they did when last surveyed in 2006.
The findings, which were released in May, showed that 91 percent of teens post photos of themselves on their Facebook profile, up by 12 percent from 2006.
Seventy-one percent post the city or town where they live or their school name.
Twenty percent post their cellphone numbers, up from just 2 percent in 2006.
The study showed about 60 percent of teen Facebook users set their profiles to private, meaning only their Facebook friends can see it.
Meanwhile, parents are becoming increasingly accepting of younger and younger children having access to the Web through their phones.
A study of British adults this summer by YouGov showed 65 percent of parents believe smartphones are acceptable for teens and 72 percent are happy for teenagers to use social media.
Kimble said parents have to stay vigilant to protect their children on the Web.
“They should be limiting the access and providing parental blocks,” he said. “Put the computers in a common area. Parents need to become more active in the social media realm of what their children are doing and to find out what sites they’re going on.”
Kimble said many parents are simply unaware of what their children may actually be doing on the Web.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have any privacy,” he said. “Now, a lot of the parents are using (the Internet) as a baby-sitter. You put them on the Internet and say, ‘Chat and text with your friends and you’re out of my hair.’ ”