Police Link Kidnapping to School-Issued Technology

North Carolina law enforcement officers are urging caution after the recovery of a kidnapped 14-year-old girl who communicated with her abductor through a school-issued computer.

Davidson County Sheriff Richie Simmons pointed to the case as evidence that students should return to in-person learning and closer supervision of their online activity.

“While they’re in school, there’s firewalls for this. When they’re taking these tablets home, there’s nothing,” he said. “It’s whatever’s on their server at their house. And that’s a big problem, because they’re talking to what and they’re getting on what sites? No one knows.”

The girl, who was reported missing on Feb. 11, was found in a car in a McDonald’s parking lot in Lonoke, Ark., more than 750 miles away. The driver, later identified as 38-year-old William Robert Ice, fired shots at officers and sped off. An Arkansas state trooper chased the car until it crashed into a snowbank. The girl ran from the car to police, and Ice was found inside with what officials determined was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He later died from the injury.

Officials have since determined that Ice was already wanted by Pennsylvania State Police for the reported sexual assault of another 14-year-old girl and that he was involved in a case related to a human trafficking sting in Ohio. They also found the names and addresses of two more 13-year-olds from Alamance County in North Carolina while searching his residence.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released statistics that it received 30,236 reports of “online enticement” between January and September 2020, almost twice the number of reports from the same period in 2019. “Children are spending more time online, for school, for clubs, and for play dates,” said Antoinette T. Bacon, acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York. “Parents don’t know all the apps or how to use them, but sexual predators do.”

According to police, Ice used a wide variety of online platforms to communicate with children, including Skype, email, and online chats.

Dr. Emily Lipe, Davidson County Schools Superintendent, discussed some of the technology safety protocols already in place. They include Internet safety training for students and a digital safety pledge that they sign afterward, an agreement for acceptable internet use that students and parents both sign, district monitoring of emails sent from school-issued student addresses, and a filtering system on all student devices called Zscaler.

“Unfortunately, there are so many inappropriate websites in existence, we must be made aware before we can block them,” she said. “Our district will review these protocols and investigate to determine if additional measures for restricting certain uses should be taken.”

Davidson County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Robert Miller agrees that online learning poses too many risks to students: “Our kids need to be in school with some kind of precaution so this doesn’t happen,” he said. “This has opened up a window for any predator out there to walk right on in.”

However, Texas detective Joe Scaramucci cautioned that it may be too early to know whether COVID significantly contributed to the increase in numbers. He pointed out that, remote learning or not, students have more access than ever before to technology like computers, cell phones, and tablets. “I don’t think COVID has helped,” he said, “but I think it’s premature to blame COVID until we have post-COVID numbers.”

Nevertheless, officials are urging caution. Lisa Fletcher, an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, released a statement encouraging an increase in communication between students and parents. “Talk to your kids about what sites they are visiting, what apps they use, whom they are texting and messaging, what kinds of pictures they take of themselves, and what kinds of pictures other people send to them,” she said. “Encourage them to share with you anything that makes them uncomfortable, whether an image, a message, or a solicitation.”

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