At the beginning of the school year, Huntington County Community Schools gave iPads to all middle and high school students.
The district joined a growing number of schools providing students with an iPad or personal computer. Other school systems that have either done this, or are planning to do it, include East Noble, Central Noble, East Allen and Southwest Allen, according to Huntington County Community Schools' website.
The "1:1" digital curriculum program, which is gaining popularity in numerous districts in northeast Indiana, is said to increase students' motivation, engagement and comprehension in learning. But officials at Huntington recognized the potential for problems when students take home the devices and use them off school property.
During the day, the school system has the ability to ban student access to sites like Facebook, Yelp and Match.com. And officials put together an informational program for parents that outlines potential problems when children are unsupervised and have access to computer equipment with Internet access away from school.
It's not just the schools, though, that are providing children with ready access to the Internet. Many young children have access to multiple digital devices – smartphones, hand-held video game players, Xbox consoles and tablet computers.
Often gifts, the devices may be handed to children by adults who do not know how they work. And with all these portals linking children and young adults to the Web, problems can arise.
Experts say the number of cases of sexual exploitation of children who are online remains relatively small – about 1 in 25.
But two recent local criminal cases have generated conversations and concern, and they have put renewed emphasis on the need for parents or guardians to pay attention to how students use the technology – regardless of whether it came from the home or school.
2 local cases
According to federal court documents, Nathan Hasty set up phony Facebook accounts, portraying himself as both a teenage boy and a teenage girl.
Using those identities, Hasty, a 34-year-old Huntington man who until the criminal investigation was a Campus Life director for Fort Wayne Area Youth for Christ, solicited naked pictures from 12- to 14-year old boys in his youth group.
Hasty flirted and cajoled, gave them phone numbers where they could text pictures of themselves and in some cases asked them to perform sex acts in front of a Web camera, according to court documents.
When FBI agents knocked on his door in late September, Hasty admitted to using the fake Facebook accounts, saying he communicated with more than 10 boys and had targeted children who were members of his youth groups, according to court documents.
He worked for Fort Wayne Area Youth for Christ at Huntington's Crestview and Riverview middle schools.
Hasty remains in the Allen County Jail, held on federal charges related to the possession of child pornography. If convicted of the charges, he faces no less than five years in prison. The matter remains under investigation, and since news of Hasty's arrest broke, other families have surfaced and reported potential contacts with Hasty to the local office of the FBI.
Meanwhile, about 50 miles north in DeKalb County, 29-year-old Jason Lee Schwartz faces a host of state charges, both felonies and misdemeanors, accusing him of multiple sexual contacts with young girls.
Among the 22 charges, Schwartz is charged with child molesting, sexual misconduct with a minor, possession of child pornography and tattooing a minor.
According to court documents, Schwartz texted girls as young as 13, gave some teens tattoos in exchange for sex and threatened to publish naked photographs of the girls on Facebook if they did not comply with his demands for sex.
Experts who work preventing crimes against children say situations such as the allegations against Schwartz are actually more common than the situation allegedly involving Hasty.
It is much more common for adults who prey on children using online or digital technology to be up front about their age, said Laurie Nathan, senior manager of national outreach and partnerships for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
That is because they do not have to be dishonest. Children with physical or sexual abuse in their backgrounds or who are suffering from neglect crave affection from adults, Nathan said.
Those children are most at risk to be exploited, she said.
And while it is easy to blame technology and its easy access for the problems of sexual exploitation, the solution lies with parental involvement beyond merely supervising use of the devices.
The long-held advice of making sure digital devices are used in common areas and not in seclusion such as a child's bedroom still holds true. But Nathan said with the ready access to wireless networks and the ease and portability of the devices, it can be challenging for parents to keep tabs on all the devices and their use.
The best prevention is to have an ongoing dialogue with your child about the responsible and safe use of digital technology. It is a conversation that must occur more than once, Nathan said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children encourages these discussions begin with children as young as 5, she said.
Parents may be reluctant to interact with their children about these issues because they believe the children are more technologically savvy, she said.
But before parents or guardians hand over the latest iPhone or tablet computer as a holiday or birthday gift, they should take the time to familiarize themselves not only with the device, but with the security and safety options available, she said.
Aggressive sexual solicitation includes suggestions to meet up, asking for contact information or telephoning the child directly, she said.
"I know it kind of shakes a community when these things happen, but we don't want to assume that every child is going to get into trouble either," she said.
According to federal court documents, Hasty's alleged online contact with the young boys began well before Huntington schools passed out the new iPads. And the students had technology in their homes well before the school provided it.
Superintendent Tracey Shafer said the district locks students out of social media sites while on school property and had done so before this incident.
"All of our students are certainly going to have access to digital media," he said. "Even before that, most of our students had digital devices at home and were using digital devices at school."
He said the district provided educational programs for parents to help them better police their children's use of the devices.
Regardless of how the students acquire digital technology, parents and guardians must establish clear boundaries well before the need arises, Nathan said.
"You really need to do that," Nathan said.