School officer's MySpace page investigated
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 site to "Amateur Match Free Sex" in just three clicks.
One of his MySpace "friends" offered the link, which included photos of nude women and gave an enthusiastic "YES!" to the question "Can I really get laid?" Another offered obscene comments about oral sex and large breasts, among others.
The links are gone, but their residue remains. Nohejl — OJ 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, spokeswoman for the Florida Attorney General's Office. "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 on the internet."
New Port Richey police chief Martin "Mo" Rickus said Wednesday he would "hardly believe" that Nohejl intentionally allowed links to pornography on the MySpace page that both the police department and school principal approved 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 during the investigation.
To become someone's MySpace friend, you have to get their approval or their 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.
The records should tell the story, 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."
So when the idea of his setting up a MySpace page to communicate with students — who range in age from 11 to 15 — came up 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 worldwide web carries its own set of risks, and educators and others involved with children often are cautioned to wade in cautiously if they choose to make personal contacts with students.
"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 school resource officers.
Because MySpace can include profanity, porn and other uncensored content despite the company's best efforts to protect against it, the Pasco school district filters out the site from its Internet service. That should be a clear indicator 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.
Yet the district has no rules on the use of social networking sites. 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.
He 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.
An anonymous caller tipped off the St. Petersburg Times that such content existed on the officer's page, complaining that her son and some friends accessed the "Amateur Match Free Sex" site through it 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.
The problem is far from isolated to this instance.
MySpace updated its safety and security procedures in November, and is working to implement an anti-porn database system. According to its security overview statement, "We work hard 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.