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."
Simpson said some of his deputies, like authorities elsewhere, proactively track student profiles. That disturbs some of those being monitored.
"I think it's an invasion of the student's privacy," said Sarah Steinberg, 18, a senior at Robinson Secondary. She said her mother had access to her Facebook account and kept an eye on her online interactions. But she said there was a difference between the forgiving glance of a parent and the potentially more consequential surveillance of a police officer. "It's outside of school, and I just don't think it should be part of the school's job to do that," she said.
Her mother agreed: "I believe it's a parent's job," Judy Ottosen said.
But police say it is impossible to ignore an important school social sphere.
"Three or four years ago, 20 percent of kids" had Facebook or MySpace profiles, said Officer Joe Lowery, who is based at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring. "Now if you ask, they almost all raise their hand."
Lowery said he and other Montgomery County officers who work in schools do not peruse the sites systematically. Even if they were inclined to do so, he said, they wouldn't have time. But Lowery said officers will log on, or ask students to log on to their own accounts, when students or parents approach them with concerns.
"You get some kids who are gang-involved," Lowery said. "A lot of these kids put it right on their Facebook or their MySpace. And you go to their site and they've got their colors up, they've got their pledges on there, sometimes they're even holding weapons. It can be very disturbing."
Lowery said parents often have little idea what their children are up to online. On occasion, he said, parents have brought printouts of profile pages for him to review. Last year, Lowery said, he solved an armed robbery of two Blake students when he turned up a picture on a MySpace profile of a man whose clothing exactly matched the students' description.
Late last month, Fairfax County police announced the arrests of seven Chantilly area teenagers for allegedly trying to recruit Franklin Middle School students to a gang. That investigation was aided when a student showed the school resource officer gang symbols littering one of the suspect's MySpace profiles.
Fairfax police say they pride themselves on addressing issues in schools before they flare into major problems. Keeping an eye on Facebook and MySpace has become an extra tool in that effort, they said. But some students were surprised that their profiles were subject to search.
"It's not really [their] business to be looking at students' profiles," said Eleni Gibson, 15, a freshman at Robinson. "Because they might see something that students didn't want them to see." But she acknowledged that the practice might be worthwhile for safety.
Others said they are aware that authorities might be cruising online student profiles.
"I think that we all know that [they] can look at our Facebooks, and they do," said LeighAnne Baxter, 17, a senior at Robinson. "If you do put up incriminating pictures, you have to be prepared for the consequences."