There was a time when two preteen girls spending the evening together in a bedroom could fill a whole house with chatter and giggling. Nowadays, the clicks and beeps of smartphones make those evenings much quieter as texts and instant messages fly back and forth between the two girls sitting together in the same room and others not physically present. Others who may include their school resource officer.
Mixed in with the messages to friends, the visiting girl reaches out to tell the SRO that when she passed the next-door bedroom, she saw her friend’s brother hastily shoving a gun under his bed. And ammunition. A lot of it.
“In order to make students feel comfortable coming to you, you’ve got to make yourself available and accessible through the social media communities they use and the ways they feel most comfortable communicating,” says Lt. Chuck Cohen of the Indiana State Police. Cohen, a veteran of 20-plus years in law enforcement (primarily in the areas of electronic and cybercrime), serves as the narrator of “Social Media and School Violence,” a new six-session, self-paced training made available through the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C). “We’re not talking about being there in a covert manner, we’re talking about a known presence so that students constantly interact with SROs and feel comfortable communicating with them.”
Cohen points out the “communities” in which young people spend time have evolved from shopping malls and 24-hour restaurants to virtual ones. And in recent years, those virtual communities have become increasingly based on apps using mobile devices rather than on the World Wide Web accessed via a browser on a laptop or desktop computer. Technology constantly changes and evolves, and social media that is “in” now may be replaced in a matter of months, even weeks. Also, the popular online social network at one school may be completely unused at another in the same town.
In addition to being aware of the “app of choice” of students in a particular school, SROs need to know how to work with social media providers to obtain evidence and understand the various legal processes impacted by social media. It’s also important to have team or supervisory involvement in an SRO’s participation in social media, to protect both students and the SRO from allegations of misconduct.
“Social Media and School Violence” covers all of those aspects and more, according to NW3C’s Jeff Lybarger. Law enforcement leaders from across the United States share their perspectives on social media and school violence, and the training includes a case study and an historical perspective on the evolution of social networks.
Also, as an online-only training, NW3C staff can update it on an ongoing basis. Lybarger explains that initially, NW3C offered the training via DVD, and after distributing approximately 1,000 copies in the first month, the center decided the online format seemed much more practical. Following its July 1 launch, “Social Media and School Violence” drew 343 views in its first 30 days online. (NW3C vets all requests to sign up for the training to ensure that only law enforcement professionals can access the modules.)
“We want SROs and other law enforcement professionals to know this training is available and it’s free. It takes about two hours total to watch it all, but you can break it up so that it works for you,” Lybarger says.
“We developed it because social media has become a huge part of kids’ lives, and SROs need to understand what these sites do, how they work, and who to contact if they have an incident they need to investigate,” he adds.
And for the SRO (or any other law enforcement officer) who needs to start with the basics, NW3C also offers “Social Media 101: What Law Enforcement Needs to Know,” a 45- to 60-minute online training that provides general information on the most popular social networks, issues to consider and the related legal process. Lybarger says officers may want to start with this self-paced class, which includes a pre-test and a post-test, and a certificate of completion.
“Social media changes so quickly that we try to go back and evaluate the content every month. We get a lot of calls from officers who want to know “What does this site do?’ ‘What’s the legal process?’ and so on. It’s a big need for law enforcement, and that’s why we took this on,” he adds.
NW3C also offers one-day, in-person training on a limited basis (18 sessions for 1,000 officers from November 2013 to June 2014), and recently added a two-day, hands-on class on cyber-investigation. (Those cyber-investigation techniques can also be found in an online training on the NW3C website.) Cohen helped NW3C develop and implement in-person trainings on cybercrime and social media for several years before being tapped to narrate the online social media training.
“The bottom line is to always take it seriously, whether it’s an individual posting about violent acts or a tip you get from another student. You don’t want to overreact, but you may never know what you’ve prevented,” he says. “Often, officers and agencies plan and train a lot from the tactical perspective of how to contain an active shooter, and that is important. However, it’s just as important to try to plan and train how to stop an incident before it starts.”