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Bolster children’s online safety at local workshops

BY EDIE GROSS

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

Statistics show that one in 25 youngsters will receive an “aggressive” online sexual solicitation from someone trying to set up a face-to-face meeting.

That’s not a huge number—unless, of course, your child is the one being solicited.

So how do you protect your children? It’s not practical to ban them from the Internet, but understanding how social media works and how sexual predators operate could go a long way toward keeping your loved ones safe.

The Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Spotsylvania is offering several free workshops this month and next to help parents, teachers and other members of the community protect youngsters 

from the dangers associated with online communication.

“We don’t try to scare them or give them horror stories,” said Dave Vice, the academy’s executive director. “We’re just really trying to make them aware.”

The academy, founded in 1978, provides training to law enforcement professionals in 63 different Virginia agencies. Recent grants from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Doris Buffet’s Sunshine Lady Foundation have supported training programs specifically targeted at preventing crimes against children, said Vice.

The training has been pretty effective. In every three-week course, the students have managed to snare at least one online predator, said Vice.

Offering tips to parents is just one more way to proactively combat the problem, he said.

According to 2006 data from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, 73 percent of the kids approached by online predators who were ultimately arrested were between 13 and 15. Seventy-three percent of those cases progressed from online contact to face-to-face sexual encounters.

Children that age often won’t confide in their parents, said Candi Johnston Stewart, finance officer at the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy and a mother of three. So part of the training focuses on helping parents spot red flags and open lines of communication with their teens.

“At 14, they’re pulling away,” said Stewart. “The idea is to say, ‘Not yet. Come on back in here.’ ”

In addition to the workshops, the academy is hosting a Kids Fun Day on May 12. Children can climb on fire trucks and rescue helicopters, meet police dogs and enjoy everything from beer-goggle exercises to time in the moon bounce. Parents can learn about Internet safety, have their children fingerprinted and get help with installing child safety seats.

It’s a chance for families to interact with law enforcement in a nonthreatening environment, rather than just during emergencies, said Stewart.

If the efforts ultimately keep even just one family from being victimized, it’s more than worth it, she and Vice said.

“It’s not just education and awareness,” said Vice. “It’s also prevention.”

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428

egross@freelancestar.com

WANT TO GO?

The Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy, located at 3630 Lee Hill Drive in Spotsylvania, is hosting free events to prevent crimes against children. To sign up for workshops or get more information, contact the academy at 540/371-2875 or rrcjaap@rrcja.org.

April 19, “Social Media for Dummies,” 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., a workshop aimed at educating parents about Internet security and child safety.

May 3, “Internet Predators,” 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., a workshop aimed at spotting red flags and understanding how online predators think.

May 12, Kids Fun Day,  10 a.m. to 2 p.m., music, games and lots of family-friendly activities.

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