On-line Safeguarding

31 Dec

I        Preamble

Safeguarding arrangements in every school/academy have to be strong, robust and stand up to scrutiny.  Ofsted inspectors put considerable store on them when they visit.  Should the arrangements fail to pass muster, the school/academy is placed in special measures.

Safeguarding covers a raft of issues – child protection against physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect – taking prime importance.  Altogether, safeguarding pupils in a school/academy is profoundly important.

The Metropolitan Police (MP), like all the other 42 police forces in the country, is struggling to come to grips with the growing menace of the sexual harassment of children online.  Jon Severs, commissioning editor of The Times Educational Supplement, was given access to two of the MP’s teams – the Predatory Offenders Unit and the Sexual Exploitation Team – to show how serious the problem was.   His accounts were published in the TES on 13 October 2017.

The victims of online abuse are getting younger. Some are only eight years old.   However, sexual abuse is not new.  It has been around for centuries.   Most abuse takes place within families.   What has happened is that it has grown exponentially through the world-wide web, applications and social media.

Adults in families would not have had experience of this when they were children.  They are more familiar with “stranger danger” – protecting their children in the way they were protected two or three decades earlier with their parents telling them to take care when they were outside in parks and on the roads.

Today, children are vulnerable in schools/academies from fellow peers.  The government has just published guidance on how they how best to deal with peer-on-peer sexual harassment and violence.

Children are also vulnerable in their bedrooms, where they should be safe.  When youngsters go online, they open their doors to the world of predators.  Some of the latter are young people too – under the age of 18.   These youngsters are oblivious to the dangers and have little information and understanding of them.

The police state that the problem is not technology but human behaviour.   Technology, like water or fire, is a bad master but can be a good servant.

A school’s job is not to combat and take on the evils of society, but outside children’s homes, teachers have the biggest impact on young people.   In my experience, parents are their children’s prime influencers till children reach the age of seven.  From seven to 13, teachers exert stronger influence in their lives.  From 13 to 18, it is fellow pupils and both, teachers and parents, are often perceived by the young people as “inferior”.

Media reports are peppered with stories of girls being sexually abused.  However, boys are also victims.  The misuse of technology has created an abhorrent trend and technology is here to stay. We cannot put it back into Pandora’s box.  Accordingly, we must educate our children to use it well – not to abuse it or be victims of those who do so.  The next section focuses on one such boy, Breck, who had his short life terminated by another youth who sexually exploited him.  His full story is recounted in the Times Education Supplement but reports on his sad saga are on the BBC and The Guardian websites

II       Breck’s Story

Breck Bednar, from an early age, was interested in building, making and putting things together, according to his mother, Lorin LaFave.   Having started with Lego, he moved onto the technology and computers.

Lorin LaFave– a single American mother, who had settled in the UK – observed her son grow up with friends.  These friends – like Breck – were creative, clever and loved to build things.   When he was in year 9, Breck’s group got together through an online gaming platform.  Because they talked to each other over the internet while they were gaming and with Breck’s room next to the kitchen, Lorin was relaxed about this activity.  But then, in 2013, she overheard an unfamiliar voice talking to her 13-year-old son. The voice sounded deeper.

She challenged Breck on the matter.  Breck pointed to a picture on his screen of a “really attractive young boy”.  Lorin thought, however, that the picture did not match the voice.   Rather, the voice evoked the image of “a 40-year-old, fat paedophile sitting behind the computer in his underpants”.  However, she acknowledged later: “Predators can be the children’s own age, or slightly older, and then the child doesn’t think he/she is in danger”.

The unfamiliar voice belonged to 18-year-old Lewis Daynes, who lived in Essex.   He told the boys in Breck’s group that he was a teenage tech millionaire and claimed to live in New York, London and elsewhere, doing undercover work for the US government and the FBI.

When Lorin voiced her concerns to Breck, he brushed them aside.  Lorin tried to find out more about him.  At first, Daynes was engaging.  “I could see why the boys looked up to him,” she said.  “He was well-spoken and would be able to converse with me in a way that an adult would.”  But he was also evasive.  “I would ask him questions about living in New York and about his work, but he would always, sort of, brush me off,” she recalls.

Lorin noticed a change in Breck’s personality, the result, she suspected, of Daynes’s malign influence.  Daynes tried to turn the boys against religion and the US and British governments.  Breck became less responsive to Lorin and objected to doing simple chores around the house, which they shared with his younger sibling triplets.  (Lorin had divorced Barry, Brett’s father, shortly after landing on these shores.)  “I shouldn’t have to do this,” Brett would tell his mother, “because Lewis says I shouldn’t.” She became “the bad guy, which is what will happen with a predator”, Lorin observed. “He turned the child against his parent”.  In fact, predators turn children against parents, relatives and safe relationships.

Lorin shared her concerns with the teachers.  None of them thought she should worry. They said: “All boys go through this phase.”  Breck was not on anyone’s radar.  He was intelligent, well-liked and not claiming he was being bullied.

Lorin contacted the Surrey police. “I said I needed to speak to the department for grooming.” The call-handler was unhelpful.  He told her: “Tell your son to go onto a different website.”

“This was the most ridiculous advice on the planet,” said Lorin, because none of our children is on a website.  They are using social media; they are using different apps and messaging services.”  Lorin persisted.  She handed over all the information she could garner about Daynes and was repeatedly assured that police intelligence would check him out.

Had the police done what she asked them to do, they would have discovered that Daynes had been accused of raping a boy and possessing indecent images in 2011, though he hadn’t been charged.  Surrey police admitted they had made serious mistakes and unreservedly apologised – but that was after the damage was done.

Lorin called a special meeting of the parents of the boys in contact with Daynes.  They decided to invite him for a coffee and a chat, failing which they would ensure that the boys break off contact with him.  The friends defended Daynes and stated that he would never meet them, i.e. the parents.  So the parents banned the boys from meeting him.

Unbeknown to Lorin, Daynes had “instructed” Breck to record the meeting secretly on his MP3 player.  On the advice of the police, Lorin had confiscated Breck’s technology, but Daynes had secretly sent Breck a new smartphone to keep up communicating.

Breck then went on a school trip to Spain.  Lorin’s goodbyes to him were the last loving exchanges she had with Breck.  Daynes stalked him in Spain with messages, voicemails and calls insisting that he get in touch claiming he had important news about his company and only Breck could help.

On his return, Breck went to stay with his father. Daynes told him to give his father a cover story that he was going over to a friend’s house.  Daynes sent him £100 for a taxi to drive an hour away to his flat.

What followed was macabre.   Breck was tied up with duct tape and murdered in a sadistic, sexual attack.   Even more weirdly, Daynes posted news of his death online.  The message went viral.  Daynes is now serving a life sentence, but this will not bring Breck back to life.

Meanwhile, Lorin, who was devastated, established a foundation a fortnight after his death; the Breck Foundation.  It’s tag line is Play virtual, live real. She devised a simple way to help young people keep safe on line – using Breck’s name as a mnemonic.

B         –           Be Aware

R         –           Report

E          –           Educate

C         –           Communicate

K         –           Keep Safe

In the light of the above mnemonic, charities warned parents, in the run-up to the last Christmas, that children could be using an anonymous messaging application – Sarahah – to bully their schoolmates remotely.   Sarahah, named after the Arabic for “honesty”, was originally intended to give workplace colleagues anonymous feedback. However, it has become a very popular social-networking application among teenagers over the last eight months.

The groups of people who have shared their user names contact one another other anonymously.  The intention was that Sarahah improved friendships by revealing users’ “strengths and areas for improvement”. However, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said that Sarahah was being used for “name-calling, spreading rumours, death threats and blackmail”.

An NSPCC spokesman told The Times: “Our advice for parents is to talk to their children regularly about what they are doing on applications such as Sarahah and encourage them to speak to you if they see something upsetting. We’d encourage children using Sarahah not to share their user name publicly, to limit who can communicate with them on the application.”

One mother said that her 11-year-old daughter received a message saying, “Go cut yourself and starve yourself while you’re there and BTW [by the way] you have no friends c***.”

Sarah Potter, 30, from Lancashire, became concerned after hearing about bad experiences with the application. She said: “My daughter deleted hers, as after seeing a few of the comments put to her by what I’d assume to be older boys or men, it wasn’t appropriate. A lot of other girls kept getting nasty things put to them too.”

The appliucation has a minimum age of 17 but is easily bypassed by entering a false date of birth. Users can send anonymous messages to their friends and acquaintances or random individuals.

Zain al-Abdin Tawfiq, the app’s creator, is distressed about these developments.  He said that in addition to the age restriction, users could set filters to block some offensive messages. He said users could report any concerns and the company would address them. Sarahah would provide information to police on who shared abusive messages upon request.

In the meantime, Childline reported a 12% rise in the number of children requesting help with cyberbullying this year in 2017.

III     The Dark Web

Another serious threat to young people is the dark web – a place which is like a bazaar for criminals, according to Rick Holland, Vice President of Strategy at Dark Shadows, a company that monitors and manages organisations’ digital risk.  It was originally developed by US military researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory in the 1990s to allow intelligence operatives to communicate anonymously online.   The software they created, TOR, was short for the original project name, The Onion Router.  This was eventually released to the public and can be downloaded free of charge.

The websites that operate on the dark web don’t sell the kind of things you might find via Google. It is not easy to navigate.  “It’s dark and dreary and full of command lines,” according to Colin Tankard, Managing Director at cyber-security consultancy, Digital Pathways.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, to trace users back to the computers they are using.

The good news is that the dark web is very niche and small.   Most terrorists use Google.  On TOR there is no search engine, such as exists in Google.  One must know the exact address of the website one wants to access.

This is not to say that governors and teachers should not be aware that TOR presents a serious risk to young people.  Kathryn Tremlett, a helpline practitioner at the South West Grid for Learning, says that in the first instance, teachers should familiarise themselves with TOR.   This should be followed with a frank and open conversation about the Dark Web with young people rather than censoring and banning its use, according to Joss Wright, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute.   Tankard adds that it would be effective to employ the fear factor warning youngsters not to go there to protect themselves.

Schools should also run workshops for parents to make them aware and reinforce the fear factor at home.  The bottom line is teachers, parents and governors have a responsibility to make our children savvy about how to use the normal web safely before tackling the dark one.

IV     Closing Thought

The legislation specifies that a child is a child till s/he reaches the age of 18, albeit, areas of the law give people as young as 16 the power to make decisions for themselves – such as taking contraceptives.

Schools/academies act in loco parentis.  Ideal arrangements are made when schools/academies work in concert with children’s parents/carers. This is not always possible when parents/carers/step parents abuse their children.  It is then that schools/academies must be their children’s champions because children are of paramount importance.

However, we have the classic case of a mother, Lorin LaFave, not being taken seriously by the agencies – especially Brett’s school and the police – when she voiced her concerns about the safety of her son.  Schools/academies do a magnificent job in protecting children, but the people who operate them are human and sometimes fail.   Protecting children’s lives is a responsibility where the effects can be catastrophic when a school/academy fails even once, especially when it comes to the internet.

There are lessons to be learn from the tragic case of Breck.  We ignore these lessons at our peril.

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