Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan discusses cyber safety during visits to Coolidge, Parker

By Zach Camenker

Reading Daily Times Chronicle

March 12, 2014

READING - Last Thursday, middle school students in the Reading Public Schools had the privilege to hear Middlesex District Attorney (DA) Marian Ryan speak to them about cyber safety. In conjunction with Middlesex Partnerships for Youth, Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports youth safety, the program consisted of a two-part presentation from both Ryan and Assistant DA David Solet.

First speaking at Coolidge Middle School and then moving on to Parker, DA Ryan and Assistant DA Solet each had the opportunity to address students on their specific areas of interest concerning cyber safety.

At Coolidge, DA Ryan was introduced by Principal Sarah Marchant. Ryan, who was appointed Middlesex District Attorney in April of 2013 after former DA Gerry Leone stepped down, received much praise from Marchant for her work in nonprofits, in leading workshops on safety, and her immense knowledge for the field of law enforcement.

Ryan stated how impressed she was with the conduct of students in the Reading Public Schools and the overall system that was employed by the administrators, teachers, staff, and students. Explaining the criminal justice system briefly, Ryan distinguished the difference between local police and the DA’s office in order for students to understand the purpose of her position and what it entails.

Transitioning into the purpose of the presentation, “Navigating the Cyber World,” Ryan specified that she and Assistant DA Solet would be focusing on safety for children and teens primarily. “The most frightening and worrisome case in the county is when something happens to children,” Ryan said.

Ryan encouraged students to share the ideas that they would take away from the presentation with at least two other people, specifying the importance of sharing this topic with older and younger brothers and sisters as well as parents and guardians.

Referring to the students in the audience as an “advantageous” generation when it comes to technology, Ryan said that there were both good and bad things to technological tools such as electronic devices and the Internet. She specified that the good things, in her eyes, are the learning techniques students are able to take away from technology.

Despite her praises for technology, Ryan did emphasize that there is also a nasty side to the Internet and to electronic communication. She urged students to think before they send things electronically since the Internet is not a reliable source of reality at all times.

Ryan evidently resonated with the students by relating closely to their generation, emphasizing how she has learned from her two adolescent children and how technology has changed from generation to generation. Drawing on examples from her youth and her children’s, Ryan seemed to suggest that the cyber world is ever-changing. She encouraged students to be careful with technology and to realize that everything is permanent once it is sent; no matter from where it comes.

Ryan related well to the students by expressing the difficulties associated with a great but dangerous tool like the Internet. She challenged everyone to think of how they would feel if nastiness was aimed at them. Drawing on examples of cases where youth became discouraged from what was said to them on the Internet, Ryan posed some valuable questions to the students.

“What are you saying [online]? Is it kind? Is it something you want someone to say to you?” Ryan asked, emphasizing the value of evaluating before posting.

Additionally, Ryan said that people, contrary to popular belief, can never take back what they say or post online, including inappropriate pictures that are thought to be deleted. “If you wouldn’t want to sit at the dinner table and show everybody the picture you took, it’s probably not one you want to keep on your phone,” Ryan said.

Ryan tried to distinguish the value of a device from the dangers of a device, saying that like many debated topics, the cyber world has both good and bad things.

Sharing real-life examples, Ryan concluded her portion of the presentation by challenging the students to do the following: think about who you talk to online, stay away from strangers, report to someone if you suspect you are a part of a mysterious activity on the Internet, and always rely on those around you for help.

In what was ultimately a powerful message, Ryan received much applause from students. She then handed the floor over to Assistant DA David Solet, Chief of the Cyber Protection Program for her office, who presented more extensively on specific cyber safety issues at hand.

Solet began his presentation by ending the myth that technology is either good or bad, saying that, in his opinion, it is neither. Emphasizing instead that people need to look at the reality of the problem by distinguishing the dangers and problems associated with technology, Solet, like Ryan, spoke of the ever-changing technologies for today’s youth.

He began with the perks of the Internet, specifically addressing the good use of Facebook, anonymity in the “Dear Abby” way as he put it, and the how the Internet serves as a resource for many people, including students of all ages.

Additionally, Solet spoke of how the Internet can erase geographical boundaries, something that he found many middle school students utilized through Skype, Facebook chat messaging, and other forms of online chatting systems. “This is a good thing that has come out of technology,” Solet said after seeing that the majority of students had used these systems before.

Emphasizing that the DA’s Office and the Cyber Protection Program do not take sides on the Internet, Solet then transitioned into what he referred to as “the flipside” of the cyber world.

“The Internet is full of people trying to take advantage of the good things,” Solet said before diving into specific examples.

In what was ultimately an extensive but informative presentation on these issues, which many people see as controversies as well, Solet presented very well to what is often a difficult crowd to resonate with.

Shining light on things that are considered crimes in Massachusetts, Solet spoke of exploitation and online predators to start. Specifying that these were often considered criminal cases, Solet drew on personal examples that he had investigated and eventually prosecuted.

He said that many cyber predators somehow hide themselves from those who they keep in contact with, often using false identity, fake voices, or fake photos. Solet referred to this as a “grooming process,” saying that social networking has become a huge part of helping predators commit online offenses and eventual sex crimes.

Solet encouraged students to tell the truth and report to the police about these instances. He listed the School Resource Officer, teachers, and other school officials as good resources for these problems. Solet also said that there are thousands of predators out there and countless cases concerning this overall issue.

Solet encouraged students to do the same thing for instances of cyber bullying, saying that the school environment is where this occurs most prominently. Although he specified the uncertainty associated with cyber bullying, Solet did say that cyber bullying is now a serious offense written into the law in Massachusetts.

Some additional issues Solet addressed were email hacking, including the danger of sharing passwords, and the ongoing problem of “sexting,” or the process of taking inappropriate sexual pictures of one self and putting them somewhere into the cyber world.

Emphasizing the seriousness of sexting, Solet added that “[Sexting] is also incredibly hurtful and causes a lot of pain.”

Concluding with a “What can you do?” section, Solet encouraged the middle school students to do many of the same things DA Ryan emphasized, but also addressed the importance of remembering online terms of service, privacy settings, and how location shows up on the Internet.

After answering a few general questions about laws, regulations, and his own work, Solet thanked the students for their maturity, praising them for listening intently to what is often deemed a “difficult topic.”

Ryan and Solet eventually moved on to Parker Middle School in the later hours of the morning where they delivered the same presentation to another crowd of students.

After such an informative presentation on a very important but controversial topic, Reading middle school students evidently took away a lot of new knowledge on cyber safety, something that undoubtedly made for good dinner table conversation on Thursday night.

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