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DCI agent warns MHS students of sexting, bullying, online predators

Anyone can be a victim of abuse online, even in small-town South Dakota. That's one of the messages Special Agent Toby Russell gave to the students of Mitchell High School on Thursday at the school's performing arts center. Russell, an agent with...

Divison of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Toby Russell and Assistant Attorney General Kelly Marnette talk about internet safety with Mitchell High School students Thursday at the school's performing arts center. (Jake Shama / Republic)
Divison of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Toby Russell and Assistant Attorney General Kelly Marnette talk about internet safety with Mitchell High School students Thursday at the school's performing arts center. (Jake Shama / Republic)

Anyone can be a victim of abuse online, even in small-town South Dakota.

That's one of the messages Special Agent Toby Russell gave to the students of Mitchell High School on Thursday at the school's performing arts center.

Russell, an agent with the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, was invited by the school to discuss internet safety, including cyberbullying, sexting and online predators.

"It's a problem in Mitchell. It's a problem in small towns, Mount Vernon, Alexandria," Russell said after the one-hour presentation. "Rural South Dakota, rural America. It doesn't matter."

Russell warned of people who create false profiles and lie about their age, appearance or other details, also known as catfishing, to solicit information or sex from teenagers.

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He also admitted to creating several fake social media profiles of his own, though his are used for criminal investigations.

"I'm probably 'friends' with some of you in this room," Russell said during the presentation.

Yet in many cases, someone can be hurt most by a friend or significant other. Russell warned the students of the dangers of sending explicit photos via text message or online, as there's no way to know what the recipient will do with them.

"Just because you want something to be private doesn't mean the internet is going to keep it private," Russell said.

Even with privacy settings activated, Russell said law enforcement, college admissions offices and future employers can find ways to see photos and posts, which could cost someone a scholarship, a job or lead to criminal charges.

Kelly Marnette, an assistant attorney general, assisted in the presentation and discussed possible legal penalties for sexting, or sharing revealing photos. According to South Dakota law, anyone younger than 18 possessing such a photo could face up to one year in jail. However, some cases could lead to a maximum of 10 years in prison, which is the same penalty for adults.

"I remember the first time I saw a true, what I call child pornography. I couldn't believe it existed," Marnette said. "Hopefully none of you have to see some of the stuff Toby and I have seen."

As for online bullying, Russell told the students words can be just as harmful as physical violence.

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Russell mentioned photoshopping photos, recording fight videos, gossiping, setting up hate groups or creating fake Facebook profiles to bully others as examples of cyberbullying.

"A lot of times for teens your age, you don't really think of things like this to be cyber bullying," Russell said. "Sometimes it can go way beyond just some simple online drama."

After the presentation, Russell said ICAC agents give similar presentations on a regular basis. Although some students may have heard the information before, he said ICAC continues to investigate incidents of teens being taken advantage of online.

Samantha Olson, prevention specialist for the Mitchell School District, said the school is federally required to discuss internet safety once per year, and even for students in attendance who made jokes about the topic, she said Thursday's presentation hit home.

"They have friends or others they've heard of this stuff happening to, so just to hear from someone like Toby and Kelly that, 'This is what we do every day and this is what happens,' I think it's really eye opening for them," Olson said.

Related Topics: INTERNET
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