School Safety Summit Addresses Deepfakes, Online Exploitation

(TNS) — Madison County educators and law enforcement officials met in Edwardsville Monday to discuss growing school safety issues and ways to address them at the fourth “school safety summit.”

While the three previous summits focused primarily on gun violence in schools, the discussion on Monday shifted to other issues that are different, but often intertwined, like mental health, substance abuse, various forms of online exploitation and grooming.

Regional Superintendent of Schools Robert Werden said that at the last summit, two FBI agents brought up their investigations of Internet crimes, which prompted the group to dive into that issue, among others.


“Gun violence isn’t the only safety concern we have in our schools,” Werden said. “More of our students are affected by these types of safety issues than they are gun violence.

“I think we need to focus on everything to keep our kids safe.”

Werden began organizing the summits after the May 2022 elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that led to the deaths of 19 children and two teachers.

The summits are held twice a year — one in January and another in June — as a proactive measure to facilitate communication between the education and law enforcement communities in Madison County, he said.

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine, Chief Deputy Marcos Pulido and Mental Health Board Executive Director Deborah Humphrey joined Werden in providing introductory remarks before the invited speakers gave their presentations.

“Mental health concerns in our children are growing every day. We see juvenile crime far too routinely, and it often has a mental health component,” Haine said. “And those are very, very hard to disentangle.”

He said law enforcement relies on its relationships with school districts to make sure that when they “need to use the hammer of the criminal justice system,” they are doing so in an appropriate way that doesn’t unnecessarily harm futures and allows for growth.

The presentations that followed focused on mental health, substance abuse, online exploitation and grooming.

SUBSTANCE USE

Donna Nahlik, director of prevention and community education at Chestnut Health Systems, spoke about substance use and how it affects students and schools as well as the myriad programs Chestnut provides for youth, which includes prevention curriculum in partnership with local districts.

Prevention, she explained, involves educating and empowering youth to make healthy decisions about substance use and is a critical component of keeping kids safe.

“We spend a lot of time fishing people out of the water … and trying to help people after the fact,” Nahlik said. “What we focus on with our primary prevention projects is keeping kids out of the water to begin with.”

Nahlik cited research from the National Institutes of Health, which shows that among individuals admitted into substance use or abuse treatment, 74 percent began using before or at the age of 17. More than 10 percent began using before or at the age of 11.

“We have to get to kids early,” Nahlik said.

A particular concern is fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin — because it has infiltrated most of the illicit drug supply, she said. Many overdoses happen when people, including kids, think they’re using something else.

Chestnut distributes Narcan — a brand of naloxone nasal spray that can reverse opioid overdoses — and provides training on how to administer it.

In Madison County last year, the organization distributed more than 15,000 doses of Narcan and trained more than 1,300 individuals, including 700 school staff.

Nahlik said some of that interest from school staff is the result of new state laws requiring school districts to provide instruction on the dangers of fentanyl and to carry a supply of naloxone, “but suffice to say, we were already getting contacted before that. School staff want to be trained. They want to know what to do in the case of an emergency.”

Substance use negatively affects young people’s brain development and is correlated to increases in other risky behaviors and violence, she explained.

Mental health concerns can also put youth at increased risk of using substances.

“It’s a chicken and egg sort of situation,” Nahlik said. Some youth have mental health concerns and use substances as a way to mask them, while others have concerns that result from years of using substances.

“There is a link, 100 percent,” she said. “And I would add that trauma is linked in there as well. So all of those things sometimes provide a perfect storm for a young person.”

To address substance use among students, Nahlik encouraged schools to examine their policies, ensuring that punitive measures are tempered with therapeutic approaches, and to administer the Illinois Youth Survey, which schools can conduct every other year with 8th, 10th and 12th grade students to gather important data on substance use and mental health.

Other things schools can do is involve parents in solutions, encourage staff to pursue professional development related to substance use, mental health and trauma, train staff on Narcan administration and provide prevention curriculum.

“Our kids need our support, more than ever,” Nahlik concluded.

ONLINE EXPLOITATION

Following Nahlik’s presentation, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Casey Bloodworth and Ali Burns from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Illinois’ violent crime unit talked about emerging trends they’ve seen affecting youth.

“During the pandemic, at least from my perspective, we noted a significant increase in online exploitation offenses committed against our youth,” Bloodworth said.

That increase in online exploitation includes grooming, sexting and “sextortion” cases, he said.

“But perhaps one of the most important trends that we’re seeing nationwide is this concept of AI-generated technology and how it’s being used to harm our youth,” Bloodworth said.

Burns provided an overview of online grooming and sextortion, emphasizing the importance of having early, honest conversations with kids to deter sharing images and to let them know that if they do fall victim to these forms of exploitation, they are not at fault and can report the incident to a parent, someone at school or law enforcement.

Bloodworth then talked about deepfakes, which are images or videos that have been convincingly altered and manipulated by artificial intelligence to misrepresent someone as doing or saying something that did not occur.

Deepfakes are being used to create child sexual abuse material and in school settings, he said, citing examples across the country in which AI was used to generate sexually explicit photos or videos of students or teachers, as well as another case in which students made a deepfake of their principal making racist and threatening remarks.

The U.S. is behind on addressing the issue of deepfakes, and it won’t be easily legislated, Bloodworth said, although there are some laws in place that can work in some capacity.

“We’re already behind the curve in trying to deal with AI technology, but I would encourage every educator in the room that if this is not a topic of conversation amongst your administrative staff, it really needs to be now,” he said.

Schools need to start developing policies on how to deal with AI, including identifying what it is and its appropriate and inappropriate uses as well as disciplinary action for the use of AI that violates policy. Bloodworth especially recommended working with IT staff to identify AI platforms that need to be blocked on school networks.

The best tool, he said, is educating youth on the dangers and consequences of misusing AI technology.

GROOMING

Michelle Denault was the final speaker of the summit, giving an abridged version of her “Grooming 101 — A Predator’s Playbook” presentation that she’s given in schools across Illinois, weaving in her and other survivors’ experiences with educator sexual abuse.

She went through the steps of grooming from targeting the victim and gaining their trust to creating a secret relationship and initiating sexual contact. The most sinister aspect of grooming, she said, is that it mimics mentoring behavior.

She emphasized the hurt that victim-blaming can cause as well as the legal obligation of educators and other professionals to report suspected child abuse.

Continuing a thread that weaved all discussions at the summit, Denault stressed the importance of educating kids on these issues and having open conversations with them to prevent these things from happening in the future.

©2024 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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