Online predators—they are everywhere, and they are after our kids.
There are 500,000 online predators active each day, according to the Child Crime Prevention and Safety Center.
But one family is working to fight them with education.
The dangers of the internet
“The doctor said it was one of the most brutal rapes she had seen on an adult, let alone a child,” recalls Amanda Staubs about the day that changed her life forever.
It all started when her mom got a computer for work. Amanda was 13 years old.
“I never once thought anything would happen because of a computer, never dreamed that predators were even out there 22 years ago,” said Vicki Johnson, Amanda’s mother.
“Somebody had posed as a 13-year-old, and they hacked into that chat room and acted as one of the friends of a student and was just getting information. He said, ‘Oh, I see you play soccer and cheer. I play football. Oh, that’s cool. So, what are your school colors?’ And I would tell him my school colors and still not name their details, and he would tell me mine. I was like, ‘Oh, well black and silver, red and black are really good together.’ And we just created a friendship to where that friendship just grew. I always thought he was a 14-year-old male, and he ended up being a 36-year-old adult.”
Staubs said she gave him tiny details over time, and he was able to figure out her school’s name and cheer schedule. He drove to the city of Winchester, where he stalked her for a couple of weeks. Neighborhood watch even reported a mysterious vehicle, but she says that it was not really investigated.
“He definitely had a whole plan. He knew when my parents would leave for work. He knew when my older sister would go to school. He knew when I would leave and come back,” said Staubs.
The middle schooler told her mom she had to babysit at a house in the neighborhood, and that is the day everything changed.
“I went walking up to the house I was supposed to babysit at and during that walk, a truck pulled up and literally no sooner than he said my name, ‘Amanda,’ and I turned, I was in the truck and taken.”Amanda Staubs
Taken by 36-year-old Donald Lee Williams Junior.
Johnson realized something was wrong soon after when she never showed up at her babysitting job. She said the teen was gone for more than five hours when police started combing the area looking for her. He brought her to a motel just six minutes away from her house, where she was brutally raped, assaulted and tortured.
“I remember that evening, the police coming to my house and asking me for something that belonged to Amanda, something that had her scent on it. And I remember looking at them thinking, ‘They think she’s dead,’” explained Johnson.
Williams eventually brought her back.
“He went into a cul-de-sac and didn’t get out of the neighborhood, and the state police were able to arrest him at that point,” said her mother. “Amanda was in such bad shape; we immediately rushed her to the hospital, where she was taken under a doctor’s care immediately. During that night was when the doctor came out and she specifically said to us, ‘This is one of the most brutal rapes and beatings we’ve ever witnessed on a child.’”
“I was told that it would take a long time to recover, and I could probably never have kids,” remembers Amanda, who vowed that night to educate her friends and others, so it did not happen to anyone else.
He was chatting with about 60 kids online when they confiscated his computer. He had them lined up. The little girl from Williamsburg, he had already raped three times, but he told each one of these girls the same thing, ‘If you tell, I’m going to kill your mom and I’m going to kill you,’ and neither one of them said a word. I hate with a passion that this happened to my daughter, but it’s what finally stopped him.”Vicki Johnson
But that only stopped him for so long.
“He served his 14 years and in 2013, he was released from prison. He had 10 years of probation. And a little under seven years, he tried to take another child. This time he tried to take an ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) officer, so he was arrested immediately. He has been recharged with the suspended sentence that he got on Amanda’s case and the Williamsburg case. He had, I believe, two additional charges for the ICAC unit officer. I was told that he’d be in prison for the rest of his life,” said Johnson.
A push for education
What happened in Winchester is something Amanda never wants to happen again. She teamed up with organizations, like the Safe Surfin’ Foundation, to educate kids and parents about internet safety. Now in her 30s, she’s been all over the country raising awareness about what can happen.
“Kids weren’t really listening to what adults had to say. It took us quite a while to understand that,” said Eddie Worth, president of the Safe Surfin’ Foundation who has also traveled the country to spread awareness and change how to reach kids.
“The peer-to-peer program is a proven program to work, whether it be adults, children, whatever. Kids, listen to kids, adults listen to adults. We contracted with the National White Collar Crime Center to develop a program that we could teach kids to educate kids,” he explained. “We would give school resource officers the lesson plans, have them facilitate a club, which is Cyber SWAT.”
SWAT stands for “safety while accessing technology.” The kids put the programs together and talk to other kids to educate them on the dangers of technology, how to spot cyber predators and more.
“There are predators. There’s evil in the world and they know how to use these devices just as good as our students. It scares me to death. It scares me, some of the stuff that I’ve seen the kids do. It’s horrifying that there are people out here that take advantage of innocent kids.”School Resource Officer Sgt. Gregory Quesinberry
Quesinberry has worked multiple cases that have been flagged when the school system software sees something on a computer or phone, like nude photos or potentially harmful language.
“Most of it was just between boyfriend girlfriend, but still yet, they didn’t understand the fact that once that picture was sent, if they broke up one day, that picture would be sent out anywhere in the world.”
The SRO is now working with 10th graders at Floyd County High School, educating them about the dangers of the internet.
This is real and kids need to realize that this isn’t something you need to play with. It’s something that’s serious, and you can take a step back because it’s not going to hurt anything. If you take a step back and you just kind of process what you’re doing and understand what you’re doing, that’ll help in the long run.McKinley Leonard, one of about a dozen students starting the Cyber SWAT program
The students were handpicked based on their personalities, desire to be involved in the school community, and had a leadership mindset. The club will grow every year, training new students and eventually having a team of students from 10-12th grade. The SRO said picking the right students could be a limitation with a program, like peer-to-peer working.
“Each one of you have kids in elementary school that know who you are. When you walk in, you’re going to be famous to them. When you speak, they’re going to listen. That’s the whole goal,” Quesinberry told the students.
“I feel like kids will learn from kids more than they can from adults for sure,” said Micah Underwood, who is also one of the first Cyber SWAT club members.
Quesinberry said it’s like a secret life for some of these kids online.
“This one person is shy, doesn’t like to talk to people can completely be vocal and outspoken on social media, because they’re not face to face. That’s the problem too we’re having,” he explained.
“If you can’t reach out your hand and physically touch and address that person, you can’t be sure who that person is behind the screen. We can create any type of identity we want to be, any type of vision we have and there are some people out there that don’t come out there with the best intentions,” explained Staubs.
Those intentions have changed over time; sextortion is a growing issue.
“The predators will have the child take pictures of themselves to share with them. Then what they do is they’ll say, ‘Oh, if you don’t keep sending me pictures, I’m going to call your parents, and I’m going to expose you.’ It’s almost a blackmail situation. It becomes that and the kids have no idea. These kids are 13-14 years old. They’ve never been in trouble, most of them, and they have no idea how to get out of that situation. So, they keep sending the pictures, and then their self-esteem is completely destroyed,” explained Johnson.
Here’s a closer look at cybercrime trends against children:
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has seen a dramatic increase in sextortion cases being reported to its CyberTipline, especially financial sextortion where the offender demands money from the child. Teenage boys have been the most common targets in these recent cases.
Safe Surfin’ says there are red flags and warning signs that your child is being groomed. If you see any of these while you’re looking through kids’ messages, ask more questions:
- Praise, flattery: They play into children having self-esteem issues.
- Photo sharing: Often the predator will send a photo first and then ask for a photo back.
- Privacy: If your child is being asked to keep a conversation secret.
- Presents: Sending gifts, even electronically, so monitor their email. Watch for packages in the mail or extra Robux or Vbux on their gaming platforms.
- Pulling away: The person will tell your child they should be making more time for them. Look for signs in the conversation that the predator is possessive.
“Man, I care. I care about these kids. We all do. We want to educate them because we’re not going to lock up all the predators. It’s just not going to happen. They are running so fast, law enforcement can’t keep up with them as hard as law enforcement’s trying,” said Worth.
“We can’t get to enough people fast enough and that’s our one desire. We want people to take it seriously. We want them to know that predators are out there. They are looking for these kids,” said Johnson.
Another limitation of the program is keeping up with the trends as quickly as they start. Safe Surfin’ is adding to the list of topics that can be taught through Cyber SWAT. Right now, they are adding human trafficking. Schools can pick what they want to teach based on the problems they are seeing.
Worth said results show this program is working. The Cyber SWAT program launched in 2019 with ten schools in different states. The schools were of various sizes and included private, rural and urban schools. All the students who participated said kids were listening, and this was making a difference in what they did online. The pandemic limited the ability to grow the program, but Safe Surfin’ is now re-launching it, hoping for the same results.
In Virginia, lawmakers in Richmond are discussing a bill that would make internet safety education mandatory in Virginia public schools.
Continuing awareness and resources
Now, 22 years after Amanda was taken, she is still fighting to educate children. She has two teens of her own and is very open about what happened with them too.
Amanda and Vicki still travel the country, speaking at conferences and to groups about internet safety, hoping to prevent another tragedy.
Here’s a look at the myriad of resources available concerning internet safety:
- We have a list of apps you can use to protect your kids here.
- Free ebook from Safe Surfin’ -- They walk you through security settings that should be on your kids’ devices.
- Regional, real-life stories of what can happen on the internet.
- Free resource currently available for use by teachers and parents to teach internet safety to children in grades 3-8. You can find the FBI’s Safe Online Surfing (FBI-SOS) program here.
This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at SolutionariesNetwork.com.