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August 07, 2007
Print Comment RSS helps Ark. police link to students

By Kayla Carrick
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As school resource officers, Jon Schwulst and Fran Hichens' office doors are open to students. But for some students, approaching the officers at school can be a daunting task. To reach out to those students, the North Little Rock police officers have pages on MySpace, a popular social networking site. It is a way for Schwulst and Hichens to reach out to students who spend an ever-increasing amount of their time dabbling on the Internet. In the past year, about two dozen pages sponsored by police departments across the country have appeared on MySpace, which has about 160 million profile pages in all.

For Schwulst and Hichens, the idea to use their personal pages to connect with students came up by accident. Schwulst said Internet-savvy students found his page a couple of years ago and began to send him messages - some just saying hello and others reporting incidents anonymously.

"In today's world, with all of the technology, the kids know how to find us," Schwulst said.

Hichens, who works at Poplar Street Middle School, said that he and Schwulst talked about using the Internet to reach kids about two years ago. Since then, he said he's received many messages from students he meets in the classroom.

A majority of the notes are just students checking in to say hello.

"It reaches some kids that you would never have a platform to talk to," Hichens said. "It lets them know you're a person and you're real that you're just a normal person outside of your uniform."

The two officers said that on rare occasions, students will use MySpace to let officers know about a problem at school. Hichens said one of his students was posting "alarming" items on a MySpace page. A fellow student alerted Hichens to the problem via a MySpace message, and Hichens was able to assist the student in finding help.

Schwulst, who works at Lakewood Middle School, said a student contacted him anonymously to tell him a fellow student was cutting herself.

"The parents had no clue," Schwulst said. "That student was able to have some intervention and it all happened because one person sent me a message." With the success of their individual pages, the school resource officers have considered making a department-sponsored page. The North Little Rock police department does not sponsor a MySpace page, and Lt. Terry Hastings, a spokesman for the Little Rock police department, said they don't utilize the site.

Schwulst and Hichens have hesitated to push forward the idea of a departmental page, concerned that if several kids listed the department as one of their "friends" through the site, it might provide an easy avenue for a predator to reach a lot of kids at once, Schwulst said.

But Sgt. Erik Palmer, who set up and operates Miami-Dade Police Department's MySpace page, said his department's presence online discourages predators. Palmer was one of the first police officers to set up a successful MySpace page sponsored by a law enforcement department.

"Predators online are always going to be an issue, but the more the public is aware of what we are doing as police officers to stop these predators, they're going to have to find somewhere else to go," Palmer said. "We're going to have to get in there and fight get online and tell how kids how to be safe."

Palmer spends two hours each morning sorting through the 160 friend requests he receives each week and responding to every message in his inbox. He will not accept anyone's invitation to become friends if they have profanity or nudity on the site. Palmer decided to make the page, which has an American flag waving and a bald eagle for a background, after he attended a training course in March.

Miami-Dade's site, which receives more than 5,000 hits each month, has been useful in recruiting efforts for officers and for the department's youth volunteer program. The department also has received anonymous tips on MySpace that led to drug busts.

Other police departments have followed Miami-Dade's lead, and MySpace officials encourage police departments to utilize the site.

Tracy Akselrud, a communications director for MySpace, travels the country to train law enforcement officials about the ins and outs of MySpace. Officers learn how to contact MySpace to work on an investigation and how to utilize the site. Akselrud will attend the annual Crimes Against Children Conference later this month in Dallas, Texas, attended by about 250,000 police officers, where Palmer will receive an award for his work on MySpace.

Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, has seen police departments get tips through the online forum about everything from graffiti to homicides. Nigam says MySpace can be an extension of community policing.

"Americans are now living their lives online and so we've worked with police departments around the country to help them create a presence in our MySpace communities just like they already have in the physical world," he said. "It's a great way for cops to continue to connect with their citizens."

Copyright 2007 Little Rock Newspapers, Inc.

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