It all started when Lt. Clint Patterson, who works in the Juvenile Investigations Division of the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office, started getting two or more cases a week of young people swapping nude pictures on cell phones.
“When we started seeing this trend, we knew we needed to do something,” Patterson said. “As we become more reliant on social media and the internet, there are also serious dangers that lurk in the cyber world.”
Patterson and Det. Steven Fontenot researched for a cyber-issues education program and subsequently discovered the Safety Net program, which was launched out of California. After attending a training on the program, they knew they needed to bring it to St. Charles Parish.
“We sat down with the D.A. and the superintendent and told them we want to crank this program up in St. Charles Parish,” Patterson said.
The SCPSO, St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s office and the St. Charles Parish School Board collaborated through a cooperative endeavor agreement to fund the startup cost and annual renewal fees for the next several years of the program.
The joint effort, now known as the St. Charles Cyber Safety Program, is based on the need to empower youth to use technology in a positive, ethical and safe manner as they move into adulthood.
Patterson and Fontenot created an hour-long presentation for schools and since August of 2017, when the program was launched, the presentation has been shown to every third through twelfth grader in St. Charles Parish.
“That’s approximately 20,000 students,” Patterson said. “We’ve also taught it in Jefferson, Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes. Louisiana passed a law two years ago that said all kids should have some sort of cyber safety in school, and this program makes that possible.”
In addition to the school presentations, Patterson and Fontenot have educated attendees at 15 parent nights, a citizen’s night and attendees at the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Conference, school counselors workshops, youth rallies, clergy members and other groups.
“Word has spread … we’re going all over the place. Since Safety Net’s launch, we have eliminated 70 percent of our cybercrimes in St. Charles Parish and have increased awareness to everyone,” Patterson said, adding the presentation is changed each year to reflect new trends, social concerns and phone apps. “We’ve developed criminal cases through giving the presentation and from talking to students and prevented a lot of things.”
The presentation provides attendees with the tools they need to manage their online lives. Topics include bullying, suicide, sextortion, sex trafficking and other cyber-related issues.
“Sex trafficking is not really prevalent here in St. Charles Parish, but sextortion is probably the number one thing right now that kids get involved in and they’re afraid to talk about,” Patterson said. “Kids fall for it they’re scared to tell their parents. I think that’s more dangerous and definitely more prevalent here than sex trafficking.”
Sextortion refers to the category of sexual exploitation in which threatened release of sexual images or information is the means of coercion.
Patterson said the pandemic has changed the online habits of many young people, with more and more teens using the computer for school. With that increase of use, he said, comes the increase of cyber-related bullying.
“Right now is the most crucial time for these kids to know what’s going on with the cyber world,” Patterson said. “With e-learning and some of their behaviors online, they don’t realize they’re breaking school rules and laws.”
Patterson said sponsorships and donations from the United Way of St. Charles, Valero Refinery, Entergy Waterford 3, Birdies, the Lion’s Club and Aubourg Designs have led to the rapid development of the educational program and the ability to provide door prizes and gifts to students who engage in the program.
To donate to the St. Charles Cyber Safety Program or to book a free presentation, email email@example.com.