Streetsboro reports more cases of sextortion as Ohio considers social media regulations

At least three more students at Streetsboro have been targeted with sextortion in recent months, following the harassment and subsequent Nov. 19 death by suicide of 17-year-old James Woods, city and school officials said last week.

In a March 7 joint press release, Streetsboro Police Chief Tricia Wain and Streetsboro schools Superintendent Michael Daulbaugh recently confirmed that another boy in the school district had been targeted online. The student told his mother, who reported the matter to the police.

“The family of this student asked that the school district, along with the Streetsboro Police Department, release a statement warning of the continued dangers our students face when using social media,” Daulbaugh wrote in the statement.

The perpetrators are typically people the victims do not know, who are virtually untraceable, and who may even live overseas, Daulbaugh said.

Parents who suspect their child has been a victim should contact their local police. Screenshots of any information or images remaining on the phone would be helpful, he said, adding that families must be aware of sextortion and must check their children’s social media accounts to make sure they are safe.

Children are particularly vulnerable to sextortion, in which criminals threaten to disclose embarrassing or sexual personal materials if the victim doesn’t provide images of a sexual nature or money. 

“It is critical that we take time to encourage our students that if they are a victim of sextortion or any other crime, they have the courage to share this information with their parents or the trusted adult in their life,” Daulbaugh said. “Regardless of how embarrassing or ‘big’ the mistake may be, families can work through any problem together.”

Portage County officials are trying to address the problem through educational programs and legislation. 

Local State Rep. Gail Pavliga recently joined Lt. Gov. Jon Husten and James Woods’ parents, Tamia and Tim, to announce the Social Media Parental Notification Act. The law would require Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and similar companies to get parental consent before allowing children under 16 to use their platforms.

The Ohio General Assembly is considering the Social Media Parental Notification Act, which Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has embedded into his proposed state budget. If it receives approval and is signed into law, companies would have 90 days to comply with all stipulations.

“Sextortion is a growing crisis in Ohio,” Pavliga said. “It is a crime that has struck home in my district, and has become all too real for families everywhere. I hope our discussion today can open a dialogue on how to educate families and prevent tragedies similar to the ones the Woods and other families have had to endure.”

Shortly after losing their son, the Woods family and Streetsboro police discovered that over the span of 20 hours, James received hundreds of messages on Instagram in an effort to extort him for money.

Since losing James, who was a student athlete at Streetsboro High School, the Woods have advocated to raise awareness about sextortion and other crimes via their nonprofit Do It For James Foundation.

“Everyone is connected with the internet. There are good and bad things that can come from it,” Tim and Tamia Woods said. “We are here … to provide tools for students to help fight against cyber attacks and assist to provide an overall betterment for our youth.”

Streetsboro schools will also conduct a Mental Health and Safety Summit on May 10. The intent of the summit is to educate Streetsboro parents about internet safety and other mental health-related topics. The Woodses will be present as keynote speakers.

The Summit will include breakout sessions relevant to parents of all grade levels. The event will be free and open to the public, and child care will be provided while parents attend the Summit.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.