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For their own good
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Links leave cop red-faced
Someone linked porn to a school resource officer's MySpace page meant to be kid-friendly.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published January 24, 2008
School resource officer John Nohejl of the New Port Richey Police Department.
NEW PORT RICHEY - If kids want to find pornography on the Internet, they don't have to try hard: A Google search with the term "porn" nets 226-million options in less than a second.
Gulf Middle School resource officer John Nohejl's MySpace page, aimed directly at the school's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, doesn't fit that description. Yet until Tuesday afternoon, kids could navigate from Officer John's page on the social networking site to "Amateur Match Free Sex" in just three clicks.
One of his MySpace "friends" offered the link, which included photos of nude women. Another friendoffered obscene comments about oral sex and large breasts.
The links are gone, but their residue remains. Nohejl - "O.J." to the kids at Gulf Middle - is under investigation by the New Port Richey Police Department and the Florida attorney general's cyber crimes unit for making the materials available to underage children.
Cybersafety "is the attorney general's highest priority," said Sandy Copes, the attorney general's spokeswoman. "I am sure the attorney general would be extremely concerned if a member of the trusted law enforcement community was either inadvertently or directly placing students at risk to being exposed to inappropriate content."
New Port Richey police Chief Martin "Mo" Rickus said Wednesday he would "hardly believe" that Nohejl intentionally allowed the pornography links.
Both the police department and the school principal had approved Nohejl's use of MySpace as a way to reach out to students "where they're at."
Still, Rickus said, the department will look into how the links got there and what role, if any, Nohejl played.
"It's unfortunate," Rickus said. "We apologize that this happened. But it's something that can happen on any site. We're going to look into it and see that it doesn't happen again."
Nohejl declined to comment.
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To become someone's MySpace friend, you have to get his approval or his invitation. However, as Rickus noted, once friends win approval, they can change their own page and all the links on them. What once might have been innocuous could take on a different look within minutes.
Computer analysts should be able to reconstruct what the offending pages looked like when the officer approved them, the chief said.
Nohejl, an officer since 1996, has worked at Gulf Middle for three years. To this point, Rickus said, any issues with his performance have been minor - "nothing major." His file included many commendations and complimentary letters, with average evaluations.
So when Nohejl proposed setting up a MySpace page to communicate with students - who range in age from 11 to 15 - in late 2007, leaders at the school and the Police Department were enthusiastic.
"It gives us another form of informal communication to know what's happening with our students in our school," principal Stan Trapp said. "We felt it was important to have as many avenues of communication as possible."
Sometimes, Rickus said, tips about crimes come through the online networking community faster than any other grapevine. Having connections there only can help, he added.
Yet the Web carries its own set of risks, and educators and others involved with children often are warned to tread cautiously if they choose to make personal contacts with students that way.
"You can't even give the appearance of impropriety because of who we are as educators," said Lizette Alexander, Pasco's director of student services who also oversees the county's school resource officers.
Because MySpace can include profanity, porn and other uncensored content, the Pasco school district filters out the site from its Internet service.
That should be a clear indication to teachers who want to communicate with students electronically that they should use other means, such as the secure district Web server, superintendent Heather Fiorentino said.
That said, the district has no rules governing the use of social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook. That's about to change, Fiorentino said.
"We are looking at what kind of policy we need and getting some guidelines out for teachers," she said, noting that if kids are on the Internet, teachers and others need to have a safe way to contact them there.
Trapp and Rickus said they saw Nohejl's attempts to reach out as a way to keep Gulf Middle safe.
"I think John is trying to do an exemplary job as a resource officer and he wants to use all the tools available to him to keep them safe at our school," Trapp said.
Nohejl ran the MySpace page from home, because the school district web server screens it out, and might not have noticed that some of his "friends" had profanity, sexually oriented comments and links to sex pictures on them, Rickus said.
The offensive links were discovered after an anonymous caller phoned the Times to complain, saying her son and his friends accessed the "Amateur Match Free Sex" site via the officer's page on Monday.
Shortly after receiving a call from the Times on Tuesday, Trapp contacted Nohejl, who removed 16 "friends" - including the ones with sex links - within an hour.
"When he heard there was a problem, he went to fix it right away," Trapp said.
Rickus said Nohejl's lieutenant supervised the process.
School officials did not notify parents about the problem, which is far from an isolated one.
MySpace updated its safety and security procedures in November to help shield younger users from inappropriate content.
It also is working to implement an antiporn database system. According to its security overview statement, the company is working to "provide users with access to age-appropriate content, to shield younger users from older members of the community and to partner with law enforcement in these efforts."
That's also a goal of the Florida Attorney General's Office, which recently launched a "cybersafety" education initiative directed at middle and high schools.
Gulf Middle is scheduled to receive the presentation in April.
Times staff writer Molly Moorhead contributed to this story. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.