CHARLESTON, W.Va. — School officials and law enforcement officers are saying that as kid’s lives are increasingly spent online, improving its safety regulations are more important than ever before.

School safety officers, superintendents, principals, teachers and other board members from 15 counties were learning about online threats to children as well as the increased amount in the real-world in Charleston on Tuesday during the regional school safety meetings.

Hosted by the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE), the conference brought in officials from the FBI and the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security to share information about new technology and programs available for each school system to utilize in helping to protect kids from these virtual and real-world threats.

One presentation being conducted by an FBI representative was highlighting some of the bureau’s community outreach programs available in West Virginia.

Will Hosaflook

These programs included a Teen Academy, Safe Schools Initiative, Active Shooter Training, Opioid Abuse Awareness, and Social Media Awareness. The latter of the programs regarding social media posed a major issue to be discussed Tuesday– how to monitor and protect kids of its usage.

Jackson County School Superintendent, Will Hosaflook told MetroNews that social media has had a huge impact on children’s lives, and it’s important for adults to stay involved.

“I stress this all of the time, especially in Jackson County and to our principals in the county is that parents just have to be so diligent these days with the social media aspect, I mean the digital footprint is so, so important,” Hosaflook said.

Hosaflook said indulging in the online world can be a risk for anyone with the multitude of hackers and predators that are out there pretending to be someone they’re not, however, he said kids can be particularly vulnerable.

He said there are simple steps parents, teachers, and guardians can take, however, to better protect kids’ online exposure, such as making sure their privacy settings are on , or monitoring exactly who they are talking to.

Hosaflook said Tuesdays’ presentations were eye-opening for school administrators as it talked about just how vulnerable kids can be online.

“What we learned today, especially with the FBI, there are predators out there, there are certain groups being formed that actually prey on our children, get them to send them a picture or something that could possibly be inappropriate and hold that over their head, which causes children to have anxiety and do things that they normally would not do,” he said.

Hosaflook said that Jackson County Schools are already starting to incorporate one new school safety program mentioned during Tuesdays’ meeting.

He said they have partnered with the Cooke Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that addresses various issues in schools and works to meet their needs. On May 20, they plan to join the organization for a social media awareness night where they will present on two parents laying out what to look for regarding their children’s’ social media activity and how to be diligent in making sure they are staying safe online.

Mingo County Schools Superintendent Dr. Johnny Branch said the impact social media has on students in Mingo County is no different.

“We see students who are either victims of social media misuse or abuse, or we see students who are involved in misusing social media to make other people uncomfortable or maybe to hurt someone,” Branch said.

Johnny Branch

He said by working with school counselors, resource and prevention officers, as well as the state police, the school system has already been trying to boost kids and families’ awareness of their social media activity.

And at each school, Branch said every student is given a device that has filtering software integrated into it to monitor the students’ online activity.

He said there’s so many threats coming from many directions, and it’s sometimes difficult for adults to keep track of everything their child could potentially be exposed to.

“I don’t think parents realize the extent to which people even outside of this country will go to get information on their kids, and will use that to hurt them, to bring them harm,” said Branch.

A fairly new unit that has been around for only about a year now, Brian Brown is an officer with the Capitol Police School Safety Unit. He said online safety is something that has been a concern for kids’ safety for practically as long as the internet has been established, but that concern is only growing.

“I’m a retired state trooper so we saw that a lot with the state police also,” he said. “We have a small Crimes Against Children Unit also in the state police when I was with them, but that’s definitely an area of safety that needs addressed.”

Brown said one of the new groups that’s of particular concern online for kids today that the FBI noted is called the ‘764,’ a violent extremist group who is involved in sextortion and the creation and distribution of child sexual exploitation.

Tuesday marked the first of three more meetings WVDE will hold with the FBI to address these concerns to counties around the state.

Tuesday’s meeting covered Boone, Cabell, Calhoun, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Mason, Mingo, Putnam, Roane, Wayne, Wirt, and Wood counties.

The rest of the school safety meetings will be held in the following locations:

Friday, May 10 – White Palace at Wheeling Park, Wheeling
Barbour, Brooke, Doddridge, Hancock, Harrison, Lewis, Marion, Marshall, Monongalia, Ohio, Pleasants, Preston, Ritchie, Taylor, Tyler, Upshur, Wetzel counties

Monday, May 13 – West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, Lewisburg
Braxton, Fayette, Gilmer, Greenbrier, McDowell, Mercer, Monroe, Nicholas, Pocahontas, Raleigh, Summers, Webster, Wyoming counties

Thursday, May 16 – West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (WVSDB)
Berkeley, Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Jefferson, Mineral, Morgan, Pendleton, Randolph, Tucker counties and the WVSDB