Software safeguards pupils online

Schools across East Anglia are turning to cutting-edge computer software to prevent paedophiles from preying on pupils in the classroom.One predator's attempt to contact a 14-year-old girl at a Norfolk school was intercepted by software, which monitors all activities on school computers, last week.

Schools across East Anglia are turning to cutting-edge computer software to prevent paedophiles from preying on pupils in the classroom.

One predator's attempt to contact a 14-year-old girl at a Norfolk school was intercepted by software, which monitors all activities on school computers, last week.

The victim's parents were alerted immediately and child protection officials yesterday launched an investigation to track down the offender.

It was the first time such a serious incident had been detected in the region using the Securus system.

The email was described as “explicit” and may have been an attempt to groom the youngster for sexual activity.

Caroline Brooker, headteacher at North Walsham High School, where the message was intercepted, said: “This email sent to a young girl was repulsive and extremely explicit. The sender seemed to be enticing the girl to respond. If it hadn't been for the Securus software, this incident might never have come to our attention.

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“It is difficult to know how prevalent this kind of incident has been as until recently we have had no way to detect it. But children are vulnerable to these types of approaches and often they do not realise they are putting themselves at risk.

“All schools need some form of computer protection. It helps to keep pupils on task, prevents them from accessing harmful material on the internet but most importantly it protects young people from predators.”

Statistics relating to internet grooming are limited as, until recently, it has been impossible to detect all attempts. However, experts believe such activities are on the rise.

On Monday 41-year-old James Palmer from Hertfordshire, admitted grooming a Norwich schoolgirl for sexual activity at Norwich Crown Court and will be sentenced next month. In 2005, 43-year-old James Wiles was jailed for two years after pleading guilty to assaulting a girl from Fakenham who he met through an internet chatroom.

A Norfolk police spokesman said: “Youngsters should never reveal personal details about themselves or arrange to meet anyone through the internet without their parents' or guardians' prior permission.

“It is vitally important that parents or guardians take an active interest and establish who their children are engaging with on the internet to ensure they remain safe."

The Securus programme costs from £1,000-a-year depending on the size of the school. It is currently installed in 27 primary and high schools in Norfolk and 12 in Cambridgeshire. Only one school in Suffolk currently uses the software - though other systems are in place.

By searching for inappropriate words and phrases, the programme monitors potentially harmful activities when pupils and teachers are using the internet or email or word processors. It also saves screenshots of every violation - potentially providing evidence.

Norfolk County Council spokesman Steven Reilly said the authority provided internet filtering systems for all schools in the county. Each school also has the option to upgrade to Securus from its own budget.

He said: “We've worked with the company behind the software to tailor it so that it actively filters applications such as word processing packages and email. Securus scans online and offline documentation to spot language and content that isn't deemed acceptable. It then records that information and informs the administrator of it.

“This would for example include emails that are being accessed whilst at school. It is encouraging to see that the package is working to safeguard children using school computers.”

Bill Jenkins, director of Securus Software, said: “Unfortunately, with the growth of the internet, it's an all-too-common occurrence that schoolchildren are contacted by paedophiles by email or messaging services.

“In too many cases, this leads to meetings being arranged and serious abuse may follow. Tracking software such as Securus can stop these people in their tracks and provide evidence for the police to catch them.”