Community House Middle School Principal Jamie Brooks has become something of a cybersleuth — a necessity in a digital world where adults with bad intentions can mingle freely with teens with bad judgment.
Her latest venture yielded a chilling warning for parents of adolescents.
It began shortly before Thanksgiving, when Brooks got a message from the mother of one of her students. The student had received a threat from an Instagram follower after telling that follower he planned to block him.
"And so I got that in the morning and figured I was going to be dealing with a situation of a student in my building threatening another student via social media," Brooks said Tuesday.
The first thing Brooks did was look at the name on the social media account where the threat came from: AlexSanders999. She didn’t have a student by that name, so she called the boy who had received the message into her office. He said he didn’t know Alex Sanders, but had given that person access to his private Instagram account because they had friends in common.
By accepting Sanders' request to follow the student, the student had opened the door for exchanging messages. Brooks asked the student to show her the Instagram account on his phone.
"So I opened it up and I could see the picture, which looked like, quite honestly, a 10-year-old kid," Brooks said.
Because the student hadn't followed Sanders, Brooks couldn’t see much about that account. But she saw the names of three other people Alex Sanders was following – two students at Community House and one at nearby Jay M. Robinson Middle School.
Neither of the Community House students knew Alex Sanders. But one had followed him back, which meant that when he gave Brooks his phone, she could see a bit more about AlexSanders999.
"The person had no posts. No pictures posted whatsoever," she said. "And was following about 175 people, and I noticed that they were all boys."
'Send Me A Face Pic'
Alex Sanders had launched a private message thread with that student. It started out chatty, then asked for a photo.
"He said, 'Send me a face pic,'" Brooks said.
That's where the student stopped the conversation. Nothing had happened, but Brooks was suspicious. She alerted the police officer assigned to her school and got in touch with the parents of the kids who had connected with Alex Sanders.
The next morning, one of those mothers was in her office. She had brought her son’s phone.
"And now," Brooks recalled, "Alex Sanders had 380 kids he was following. So overnight he went from about 170 to 380. And they were still all boys."
There was a chat that was starting to look familiar.
"Starts off with the ‘Hey, what are you doing, how old are you, what sports do you like,'" Brooks said. And then, a request for a picture. She says it "felt very much to me like someone was trying to bait kids, step by step."
A Crusade Begins
To understand what happens next, it helps to know a bit about Brooks. In 2013, she learned that some of her male students had been circulating a photo of a female classmate with her breasts bared.
Brooks investigated – and while the photo hadn’t been taken at school, Brooks was dismayed by what she uncovered. For instance, there was an app that looked just like a calculator on the screen but was actually used to hide photos and videos from prying parents.
That set Brooks on a quest to keep up with harmful technology and educate parents about all the ways their kids can get into trouble online.
Brooks admits she finds cybersleuthing kind of fun — "my favorite TV programs are 'CSI' and all those things, and I swear in my next life I’m going to be FBI" — but her crusade is serious.
"I feel like we’ve got to help one another," Brooks said, "because the kids are way ahead of us with the technology and if we’re not willing to get out there and try to get in front of it and help each other then it’s going to win. It’s going to beat us."
So Brooks could have stopped with alerting the school police officer and a handful of parents to the AlexSanders999 situation.
Instead, she went through the list – all 380 screen names – and wrote down all the students she knew. There were about 10 from Community House. She called them in one by one.
This Is Not A Kid
One student had sent Alex Sanders a face shot. And then, after some badgering, a photo of his abs.
"And then Alex Sanders went a step further and asked him what kind of underwear he wears," Brooks said. "And then ultimately asked him to send a picture of him in his underwear."
By now, Brooks felt certain this was not a student trying to make friends. She forwarded all the information she had to police and sent a warning to Community House families. It urged them to remind their children not to interact with anyone they don’t know in real life.
She also contacted Instagram about what she believed to be an online predator. Tuesday afternoon she checked to see if AlexSanders999 had been shut down.
It was still active and following 373 people.
Brooks, who has two teenage sons of her own, knows as well as anyone that middle schoolers want their privacy. Yes, she said, they’ll balk if parents insist on snooping. Do it anyway, she said.
"You just have to have a relationship with your child where you say, 'Hey, let’s sit down with your phone tonight and I want to scroll through your Instagram,'" she said. "'I want to go through your Snapchat. I want you to open up your My Eyes Only account within your Snapchat.'"
In case you’re wondering, My Eyes Only is what Brooks describes as a password-protected secret vault for photos and video – sort of the latest version of the fake calculator.
And that, she said, is why parents can’t back down. It's difficult, she said, to insist that kids give up privacy, but "I don’t think it’s impossible, because the bottom line is, who’s paying the cellphone bill?"
As for AlexSanders999, the account was no longer visible to a WFAE reporter just moments after she sent a message seeking comment about the concerns. Others have reported still seeing the account.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said the Instagram account for AlexSanders999 disappeared. Although the reporter was no longer able to see the account, it was still visible to others as of 7:50 a.m. Dec. 4.