Chesterton Tribune

Sheriff warns parents: It is a dangerous time to be young

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By KEVIN NEVERS

What do school superintendents in Porter County believe to be the greatest threat to youth?

Porter County Sheriff Dave Lain put that question to them earlier this year. The consensus response: Internet perils, prescription drug abuse, and bullying.

It was with those threats specifically in mind that Lain, in conjunction with Porter-Starke Services Inc., presented a seminar on Wednesday at Ivy Tech Community College in Valparaiso entitled “Protecting Kids and Teens.”

And if a theme emerged from the seminar it would have to be this one: youth put themselves or others at risk because they are entirely too ignorant of the hazards of postmodern culture and too trusting of others, while their parents—many of them—are entirely too sanguine about their children’s safety.

More: by far the greatest defense today is an open, honest, candid line of communication between kids and their folks.

Lain opened the seminar by noting that programs on Internet safety offered by the PCSP in the past to local schools have tended not to be well attended. “Maybe parents think they’ve got a good handle on what their kids are doing,” he suggested.

Maybe they do. Maybe.

The Internet

How many parents, however, are aware that one of seven kids aged 10 to 17 have been approached sexually while on line? That 34 percent of kids have been exposed to sexual images on the Internet? And that 23 percent have had contact with strangers?

Cpl. Jeremy Chavez of the PCSP put these numbers on the table, with the admonition that children who surf the Internet must be taught to protect their name, identification, and reputation.

Lain, for his part, spoke of a sting operation run in 2006 by the PCSP and the U.S. Secret Service in which 14 men were arrested when they traveled to Porter County—some of them from hours away—to have contact with people whom they thought were teens. “It you don’t think it’s happening here, you’re mistaken,” Lain said. “They walk among us. That’s what’s so frightening. Your children are in danger every day of being attacked in your own home.”

An PCSP officer, going on line with a child’s profile during an Internet safety program, got a hit from someone in cyberspace within two minutes of logging on, Lain remarked. He added that he doesn’t mind in the least saying that the PCSP will be running another sting operation with the feds in the near future. “Because it’s just so easy to trap a predator. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Tips:

•Parents can create their own Facebook or MySpace accounts, make their own profiles, and that way check on what their kids are posting to their accounts.

•Kids need to know that what they post to the Internet cannot be deleted, cannot be erased, cannot be removed, ever. “Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back,” Chavez said.

•Kids need to think about their future. Their rants on blogs, their photos, can all come back someday to haunt them when they’re looking for a job.

•Kids need to learn not to post identifying or personal information, like addresses, telephone numbers, their ages, even their names.

•Parents should locate all computers in the household in open areas where they can be monitored.

•Parents should install filtering programs. Some programs—www.kidswatch.com—set time limits, track activities, sound predator alerts, and print reports.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Here’s the good news: use of illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin is dropping among the youth of Porter County.

Here’s the bad news: the use of prescription medications is rising dramatically.

One in four kids who take prescribed medications has been approached by others looking to buy their prescription, Chavez said. One in five kids has reported the abuse of prescription medications: pain-killers, tranquilizers, barbiturates, stimulants. And there is more abuse among teenagers of prescription medication than of any other drug but marijuana.

There are two chief reasons for the increasing prevalence of that kind of abuse. For one thing, Chavez said, every household’s medicine cabinet contains some kind of prescription medication. And if the kid’s own house doesn’t, then his grandmother’s house or his uncle’s will.

For another thing, kids have this bizarre idea that, because a medication is prescribed by a physician and obtained at a pharmacy, it’s a lot safer than a drug bought in a back alley. “It’s a prescription, it’s prescribed by a doctor, why do I have to be concerned?” is how Chavez put it. “Besides, it’s cool, everybody’s doing it.”

Chavez recommended a frank discussion with your children. Be specific about your concerns. Tell your child why you’re uneasy about his or her behavior. Don’t make excuses for your child, be firm but loving, and be prepared to hear a lot of denial. Act now.

And always, monitor your child’s activities.

Bullying

An incident of bullying occurs every seven minutes, Chavez said. But an adult intervenes in only 4 percent of those cases, a peer in only 11 percent.

We all have our memories of bullies, many of us of being bullied, yet it’s strange how some tend to think of it simply as a rite of passage, Chavez observed. A rite of passage which keeps 160,000 kids at home every day in the country because they fear being bullied. A rite of passage which has prompted at least a handful of documented suicides by kids who just couldn’t bear living any longer being bullied.

Bullying, Chavez said, is a learned behavior which must be unlearned, a result of too little supervision by parents, of too often being rewarded for throwing obnoxious tantrums, or else of harsh punishment and negative feedback.

The difficulty: only a cooperative effort by schools, kids, and parents are likely to stop bullying. Schools need to create a healthy environment and studies have shown, Chavez said, that the single most important person for doing so is the principal. “Staff will follow a properly motivated principal.”

One specific thing which schools can do is establish an anonymous reporting system—a complaint box, so to speak—into which victims can drop a bully’s name. Teachers and staff, so alerted, can then make a particular effort to monitor the accused bully.

But parents and kids have their own role to play, said Erin Woike of The Caring Place. “One of the best things parents can do is encourage their kids to stand up for the target. Bystanders are the biggest group and the kids who witness the bullying must decide whether they’re going to stand up for the victim, let it happen and watch, or join in themselves. In a high percentage of cases, when a bystander stands up for the target, the bullying stops. If a bully is making fun of someone and nobody laughs, the bully will stop.”

“We need kids and parents to learn that just standing by and letting bullying happen is no longer acceptable,” Lain said. “We don’t accept it from adults. Why would we accept it from younger people?”

For the Kids

“If you feel yourself exposed or threatened, you’ve got to understand that your mom and dad are on your side, they’ve got your back, they’ll get the expert help you need,” Lain said. “Sometimes it’s lonely being a kid. You feel it’s you and everybody else. But there are people out there you can trust and who’ll help you through your problem.”

 

Posted 10/1/2009