At the urging of Fullerton police, a mother sent us this chilling story of her 11 year old girl who was nearly lured into a meeting with a suspected sexual predator after spending months chatting with him on a school laptop. School district employees deceptively promised parents that the laptops were safe when they required parents to purchase them, ignoring evidence that abuse of the laptops is prevalent throughout all grade levels. Many other children have been harmed by the 1:1 Laptop Program, but this is the first time that a parent has had the courage to come forward with the truth.
What I am about to share is very personal, and something that I’ve feared sharing for months now. You see, my children are transfer students, and I’ve feared that our transfer for next year would be denied if I spoke up, or that my children would be humiliated from the publicizing of this. I’ve been afraid that somehow the message that I want to convey would be torn apart and somehow I would be accused of poor parenting. Regardless of my fears of discrimination or criticism I am coming forward because I feel that it’s my duty, as a parent, to warn other parents of the very real danger that exists for our children.
My daughter was a sixth grade student at Golden Hill Elementary School last year for the 2008-2009 school year. The parents of incoming 6th graders attended a meeting, prior to the school year starting, about the laptop program. We basically voted whether or not we wanted to participate in the program. It was my understanding that if I did not want my daughter to participate I could send her to one of the surrounding schools that was not participating in the program. Due to the fact that she was a transfer student, my husband and I did not want to transfer her out, as we felt that the other schools in our area were not, let’s just say, as nice of schools as Golden Hill. We agreed to the program because we felt that we had very little choice, and signed the appropriate paperwork to begin leasing our daughter’s very expensive laptop that we really couldn’t afford.
Parents were encouraged to ask questions after the presentation. Topics about internet safety were brought up, and the parents were told that many state of the art firewalls were in place. If a child were to search an inappropriate topic they would immediately find out about it and the child would be questioned. They said that a tech person from the district would come in regularly, if not every week, and randomly check the computers for such material, or to do repairs on the laptops as needed. I can honestly say that when the school principle and district technology and media rep stood up there and told me this, I believed them.
In the beginning of January, 3 ½ months into the school year, I checked my daughter’s email and found incoming emails that warranted suspicion. After further investigation of the emails I found out that my daughter was able to access pornography and that she was chatting with adult men online. She used her school laptop to access a pornographic website, from her bedroom at night, using the neighbor’s unsecured wireless. What I did not find out until later was that she was making plans to meet one of the men that she had met online. In the 3 ½ months that this was happening neither the school nor the district was alerted by her inappropriate web usage from her school laptop.
Looking back I can remember when I picked my kids up after school I often saw 6th graders, with their laptops open outside of the houses that surrounded Golden Hill. They were accessing unsecured wireless too. I wonder what they were accessing outside before and after school that they weren’t allowed to access at home. My daughter told me that many of the students had found pornography on their school laptops with ease.
I took the laptop to the Fullerton School District to be searched by the Technology and Media Assistant Director Sam Ricchio. I was so angry. I asked him how it was possible for her to get onto such websites if there were so many firewalls in place. I wanted to know why they weren’t notified right away like they promised us that they would be if such searches were occurring. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any answers for me. He searched her computer for days before calling me and recommending that I take it to the police for a more detailed search.
I took the laptop to the Fullerton Police Department. They were successful at doing a forensic search on the computer. They told me that she was in fact chatting online using Yahoo Chat. They tried to send a warrant to Yahoo to get the records of the chat sessions, but because Yahoo purges the chats so quickly, it’s not possible to get the records. Since there were no records, no crime was committed and the case was closed. A month after everything with my daughter was revealed; the Fullerton Police Department came to Golden Hill and taught on internet safety.
The school had a meeting at the end of the year for the parents of graduating 6th grade students. Parents were given the option to keep the laptop or to turn it in. We were encouraged to keep the computer because “It’s still a great computer with incredible firewall protection for your child. If your child looks up the word, say, ‘breast cancer’, it’ll be flagged.” My husband was so appalled by this that he approached the principal, Robert Johnson, and the district Technology and Media Director, Ted Lai, afterwards to confront them on the lack of truth in what was being promised. Ted Lai said, “Your daughter is a brilliant hacker, and her situation is a one in one million case.” It’s unbelievable that he would rather make sensational claims and accusations instead of recognizing the huge gaping flaw in the laptop program, which is lack of safety for our children. I called the detective who handled our case, and I told him what Ted Lai said. He sounded shocked at what he heard, and assured me that he never said anything like that to the principal or Fullerton School District. He said that it was far from a one in a million case, and that a similar thing happened to a child who attended a neighboring junior high, only she actually got in the vehicle with the predator.
Sam Ricchio recommended that I take all laptops and computer cords into my bedroom at night for safekeeping. He does the same thing in his own home. Our daughter no longer has private computer access, and my neighbor has secured her wireless. I felt stupid for being so naïve in thinking that a child should have a laptop with access to whatever she could dream of. I felt safe in believing that a school district would have the best firewalls to protect my child like they promised that firewalls do. I do believe that parents have a responsibility to watch over their children, and this generation requires a new kind of vigilance, but I also believe that a school has the responsibility to be honest in their abilities to protect our children as well. Let’s face it. Kids are kids. If you give them the key to unlock Pandora’s Box, they’re going to unlock it. It is unnecessary and unsafe for a child of any age to be given a laptop of their own.
My goal in coming forward with this story is to make parents aware that personal school laptops for children are not safe even though firewalls are in place, regardless of how much a child is supervised. Most children are not kept under constant surveillance by parents, caregivers, after-school programs, or even on school campuses. Seemingly innocent chat rooms are the hunting grounds for child predators, and the internet itself is filled with material that a child of any age should not have access to. This is not an isolated incident. This is not an outstanding circumstance or child. This can happen to your child or a child that you know. The police told me to consider myself lucky that I have my daughter with me, and that I did not have to identify her body from somewhere. They were right. I am lucky. Countless other families aren’t as lucky though. You can protect your children from what Fullerton School District believes is a safe and beneficial program. You can choose to NOT purchase a school laptop for your child, and to NOT support the laptop program.