In wake of child porn arrest, speakers at Deer Isle meeting urge new security measures

Posted Nov. 14, 2011, at 4:56 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 14, 2011, at 10:06 p.m.

DEER ISLE, Maine — A forum for Deer Isle-Stonington residents held Monday in response to a school employee’s arrest on child pornography charges turned into a discussion about the challenges of protecting children in the age of Facebook and social networking.

And while both parents and a law enforcement official agreed there likely was nothing more the school system could have done to avoid the incident, several speakers urged school officials to consider additional security precautions, including background checks for volunteers.

The gathering of about 20 people at the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School came roughly six weeks after the school system’s computer network administrator, Joseph Audette, was arrested for possession of child pornography.

The lead investigator in the case, Michael McFadden of the Maine State Police’s computer crimes unit, told the group that he and technicians still are going through the mountains of files found on Audette’s computer.

“At this point, we don’t think there is any involvement with local children,” McFadden said. “We haven’t seen that yet. But I have to be honest with you: we have only gone through a fraction of the information.”

While parents asked McFadden numerous questions about the case, which he could only discuss in general, much of the discussion centered on steps parents and the schools could take to better protect children from sexual predators, both online and in the community.

Nina Milliken, who handles Internet security as well as sexual assault issues with Downeast Health Services in Ellsworth, recommended that parents keep all computers in a common room in the house and regularly check the computer’s history that shows which websites have been visited. Additionally, both Milliken and McFadden said parents should not only “friend” their children on Facebook and keep tabs on their use of the social networking tool but should know their user names and passwords.

“You have to know the user name and password of your kid’s Facebook account,” McFadden said. “If you don’t have it, they are getting stuff by you.”

Ashley Pesek of Atlantic Mental Health Center said parents need to have conversations at home to teach their children about the dangers of “befriending” strangers online, just as most parents teach their children not to talk to strangers on the street. How parents deal with sensitive topics, such as the recent arrest in the school, is entirely dependent on the family, however.

“You can give them as much information as you’re comfortable sharing with them to make sure your kids are safe,” Pesek said.

But all three speakers also reminded parents that while sexual predators often are portrayed as strangers, the majority of sexual abuse cases involve children who were victimized by a family member or a trusted family friend.

“I know a lot of people think this is a tight-knit community and this doesn’t happen here,” Milliken said. But she warned that not only do sexual abuse cases happen regularly in small towns, they sometimes remain hidden because children or adults are hesitant to report someone in a tight-knit community.

In Audette’s case, McFadden said the school system did everything correct before and after the alleged crimes came to light. Audette, who is from Surry, passed a background check before being hired and McFadden said the school system ranks among the best he has worked with as far as transparency and cooperating with an investigation.

The investigator said Audette, who is scheduled to appear before a judge in Ellsworth this Thursday, has cooperated with law enforcement so far. But he said the case highlights the challenge of identifying those involved in exchanging child pornography.

“You can’t tell by looking at a person or talking to them for 10 to 15 minutes what they do during their alone time with a computer,” he said.

For some parents in the room, however, Audette’s arrest raised issues about whether the school could be doing more to protect children. In particular, parents, teachers and several volunteers recommended that schools require background checks for volunteers who work with children.

Robert Webster, superintendent of School Union 76, which includes Deer Isle and Stonington, said background checks have been discussed in the past but never were instituted out of fear of discouraging volunteers.

“That certainly will be revisited,” Webster said.

Travis Eaton, a parent of several children in the school system, was among those arguing for background checks for volunteers. Eaton also was among a group of parents who voiced their frustration that the meeting was held so long after Audette’s arrest.

“Why did it take six weeks for this meeting?” Eaton said. “It seems like it should have happened when the pan was still hot.”

Parent and school system employee Markus Ford, meanwhile, said he hopes the community will come together to address problems without letting the incident overtake the close-knit nature of the Deer Isle-Stonington area.

“There was something taken away when this happened and really you cannot put that back,” Ford said. “But if this takes away the rest of what is good [in the community] then that would be a tragedy.”

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