Campus Officers Cruise Facebook and MySpace for Clues to School-Related Crimes

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

As high school students flock to social networking sites, campus police are scanning their Facebook and MySpace pages for tips to help break up fights, monitor gangs and thwart crime in what amounts to a new cyberbeat.

Some students object to police looking over their shoulders. But officers responsible for school safety say routine checks of the online forums often add to the knowledge they glean from hallways or schoolyards.

"I can't tell you how many fights we've been able to prevent," said Officer Freddie Rappina, who is based at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County.

He and another officer watch over more than 4,000 students at the largest school in Virginia. In Rappina's small office at the end of a series of long hallways, a flat-panel computer screen offers him a portal into student life.

"Let's say two kids are having a spat online," he said. "I can take them in here and talk to them."

Students who have run away from home occasionally check in with their friends on the sites, providing him with information he can use to help get the kids to safety, Rappina added. But he said the computer is no substitute for face-to-face contact with students.

In recent years, school administrators have blamed some campus fights on Internet taunts and urged parents to keep watch on their children's computer activity. But students who use the Web to let their 500 closest friends know what they are doing at all times are sometimes surprised that police are watching, too.

Police don't have special privileges on Facebook or MySpace. Students who want to go unobserved can change privacy settings so that their profiles are displayed only to a list of approved people. But the default settings leave those profiles open to many Internet users (in the case of Facebook) or all of them (in the case of MySpace).

Employers and college admissions counselors have vetted online profiles of student applicants for some time. Police across the country have been doing the same for the past two or three years, said Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for the Minnesota-based National Association of School Resource Officers.

"If you're already familiar with the technology, it doesn't take you but a couple of minutes to hook into the student population and keep an eye on things," Quinn said.

An expedition into a thicket of blinking MySpace profiles found high school students discussing drugs, sex and fights. It was all publicly available (although in language that caused a reporter to blush).

"It's crazy, the things they put on there," Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said. "They seem to think they're invisible."

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