Kidnapping case shows online school leaves kids vulnerable, North Carolina sheriff says

A 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped in North Carolina used a school-issued computer to communicate with her abductor, a 38-year-old man accused of being an online predator, officials say.

Now the sheriff in Davidson County, where the teen lives, says the case highlights the need for students to return to in-person school, where their online activity might be more closely monitored.

“While they’re in school, there’s firewalls for this. When they’re taking these tablets home, there’s nothing,” Sheriff Richie Simmons said Monday during a news conference. “It’s whatever’s on their server at their house. And that’s a big problem, because they’re talking to what and they’re getting on what sites? No one knows.”

Simmons’ comments add to the debate about whether students should return to class or continue online learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Some people, including teachers, say it’s too risky to bring students back to campuses. Others argue online learning is leading to mental health issues among children — and possibly leaving them more vulnerable than ever to predators on the internet.

In North Carolina, the state legislature passed a bill this month that would require K-12 public school districts to offer in-person learning. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said he will not sign the bill, but he hasn’t indicated whether he will veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

Nationally, authorities have warned about an increased risk of kids being targeted through social media and chat rooms during the pandemic.

“Children are spending more time online, for school, for clubs, and for play dates. Parents don’t know all the apps or how to use them, but sexual predators do,” Antoinette T. Bacon, acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York, said last fall.

“They know where the kids are and how to reach them. Just as parents taught kids to be safe at home by locking the doors at night, parents must learn how to keep kids safe online.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said it received 30,236 reports of “online enticement”from January through September last year. That was nearly double the 15,220 reports during the same time period in 2019.

“More kids are online. More offenders are online,” Lindsey Olson, executive director of the center’s Exploited Child Division, told The Washington Post this month. “There is just more opportunity right now.”

But Joe Scaramucci, a detective in Texas, told The Post it’s too early to know the role the pandemic has played. Many children had regular access to computers, tablets, cellphones and other devices before school districts switched to remote learning.

“I don’t think COVID has helped, but I think it’s premature to blame COVID, until we have post-COVID numbers,” he said.

Dramatic rescue

The rescue of the 14-year-old girl unfolded in a hail of bullets in Arkansas on Saturday.

She had been reported missing on Feb. 11, after she failed to pick up her younger sibling from the bus stop, officials said during the news conference, which was streamed live by WXII.

She was found more than 750 miles away in Lonoke, Arkansas, after local officers spotted a car believed to be connected to the kidnapping in a McDonald’s parking lot, according to Arkansas State Police. The officers ordered the driver, later identified as 38-year-old William Robert Ice of Pennsylvania, to get out.

Ice shot at the officers, critically injuring one of them, police say. Then he drove off as the other officer “returned gunfire.”

An Arkansas trooper reportedly chased the vehicle until it crashed into a snowbank, at which point the girl ran from the car to police.

Ice was found inside the car with what officials say was likely a self-inflected gunshot wound. He died from his injuries.

The teen is now back in North Carolina, police said.

Ice was already wanted by the Pennsylvania State Police, who say he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl, WPXI reported last week. He was also involved in a criminal case related to a human trafficking sting in Ohio, according to the station.

In North Carolina, officials said they learned through their investigation that Ice had also been in contact with other teens in the state.

Investigators who searched Ice’s home in Pennsylvania found the names and addresses of two 13-year-olds in Alamance County, according to police.

Ice used a “myriad” of platforms to communicate with the children, including online chats, emails accounts and Skype, officials said.

Response from schools

Davidson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Emily Lipe said in a statement that the district has safety protocols in place for students using devices.

“Some of these include a digital use safety pledge students sign after internet safety training, an acceptable internet use agreement students and parents sign, human monitoring of school issued student email accounts, and a filtering system (Zscaler) on all student devices,” she said.

When school officials learn find out students have “visited an inappropriate site,” the district blocks the site, according to Lipe.

“Unfortunately, there are so many inappropriate websites in existence, we must be made aware before we can block them,” she said. “Our district will review these protocols and investigate to determine if additional measures for restricting certain uses should be taken.”

The Alamance-Burlington School System said law enforcement officials have not yet said whether school-issued technology was involved in communications between the two children and Ice.

“Our district-issued Chromebooks all have the same firewall security for at-home learning as they do when used in the classroom in school,” a district spokesperson said. “All ABSS firewall security is in the cloud so it doesn’t matter where the device is being used.”

But Maj. Rober Miller with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office echoed his boss’ concerns about online learning.

“Our kids need to be in school with some kind of precaution so this doesn’t happen,” he said. “This has opened up a window for any predator out there to walk right on in.”

He said officials “got lucky with this one.”

Lisa Fletcher, an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, said in a Justice Department news release thatit’s important for parents to talk to their kids about risks on the internet.

“Talk to your kids about what sites they are visiting, what apps they use, whom they are texting and messaging, what kinds of pictures they take of themselves, and what kinds of pictures other people send to them,” Fletcher said. “Encourage them to share with you anything makes them uncomfortable, whether an image, a message, or a solicitation.”