K Matt Bryant hopes Florida teens will listen to his words of caution
There were at least a dozen people on the stage behind Matt Bryant on Friday morning, including several high-ranking police officials, a brave young lady with a harrowing story of abduction, a handful of local school superintendents and even Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum.
There were dozens more in the audience at One Buccaneer Place as Attorney General McCollum introduced Florida's CyberCrimes Against Children Initiative, including a classroom's worth of computer-savvy eighth graders who plan to take the lead in bringing this initiative to their classmates. And there was a row of cameras and two live web streams bringing the press conference to Bay area schools and Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans.
But, for Bryant at least, the most important person in the room was a little boy in the back, not even a year old, snoring lightly on his mother's shoulder. That little boy is Tre Bryant, born to Matt and Melissa last September. He and his four stepbrothers and sisters are the most powerful of motivations for the Buccaneers' kicker; on Friday, they were the reason he joined the Attorney General in front of the cameras Friday.
"Every time I walk into the room and I see my son, he has that smile on his face when he sees his dad come in," said Bryant. "To think that there's possibly somebody out there that would want to take that smile off his face some day… Anything I can do to help out to make the kids aware, to get these people behind bars that are trying to take away our children, I'll do whatever I can."
Bryant has thus joined in Attorney General McCollum's innovative and aggressive efforts to combat internet predators and purveyors of child pornography. Those efforts recently got a boost from the state legislature, which passed the CyberCrimes Against Children Act of 2007 to provide the Attorney General's office and state law enforcement with additional resources to fight internet crime against children. The act includes new prosecutorial tools, such as increasing the penalties for "grooming" (misrepresenting one's age in order to seduce a child on the internet), and a significant increase in personnel for the state's CyberCrimes Unit in Jacksonville.
Attorney General McCollum introduced several aspects of the CyberCrimes initiative at a series of press conferences around the state on Friday, beginning in Tampa. Bryant's assistance is part of the strategy to get the message about internet safety across to Florida's children.
"We have several partnerships," said McCollum. "One is with our school systems. We have a number of celebrities that are going to join us in this partnership to educate Floridians about the dangers and how to prepare and prevent bad things happening on the internet. A lot of good things happen, but there are bad things."
Bryant, who had planned to pursue a career in federal law enforcement if his professional football career hadn't come to fruition, acknowledges that his status as an NFL player can help the initiative.
"You hope so," he said. "If you took a poll and ask these kids what you want to be when you grow up, a lot of them want to be professional athletes. I would guess that if they hear somebody in that realm talk about it, hopefully they'll pay attention to what's going on."
As Attorney General McCollum knows, it is a critical but difficult task to get the message across to all of the potential child victims in the state of Florida. According to the statistics he shared on Friday, 77 million children visit the internet across the United States every day, and of those aged 10 to 17, one out of every seven is solicited for sex on the internet. Alicia Kozakiewicz believes that number is probably too low, and she has a rather informed perspective.
In 2002, Kozakiewicz, then 13, was abducted by a 38-year-old man she had met in a chat room. She was enslaved, tortured and assaulted, but she was also one of the fortunate few in such a situation to be rescued, thanks to a tip that helped the FBI trace her abductor. Now she speaks to teens about the danger of internet predators, and she joined the Attorney General on Friday to share her story and her support.
Part of Kozakiewicz's message: Educate children, but don't blame them. Internet predators are cunning, and they will exploit any advantage, such as information teens readily share on MySpace type pages about their interests and their whereabouts. It is against this threat that Bryant wants to protect his own children, and help parents across the state protect theirs.
"These people are hiding behind a screen name," said Bryant. "Technology, as it advances these predators advance. I'm sure they just sit around figuring out how they can trap a kid into a situation like this. It's like with anything else, you've got to be educated in what's going on around you and in your environment. Be careful about the information you give out, because that's fuel on the fire for these people."
The son of a policeman, Bryant didn't have a computer as a teenager and didn't grow up with the internet as a prevalent part of his life. But he remembers clearly the lengths to which his parents went to ensure his safety by monitoring his activities. If he was headed to a sleepover at a friend's house, for instance, his father would make a point of checking out the house and verifying that he was there. That same sort of vigilance can be applied to a child's activities on the internet.
"The internet is a big part of our world," said Bryant. "It helps us out, but it's also an avenue for these predators who go after our kids. The kids need to understand that. These people are hunting. They're using [information pages] as a source to go after you. The kids need to realize that everybody can see this; it's not just your friends."
As part of his involvement with the CyberCrimes initiative, Bryant will be featured in a series of public service announcements for radio and television. Professional surfer Kelly Slater will also serve as a spokesperson for the initiative and appear in PSAs.
In addition, the Attorney General's office has launched "SafeSurf," a web site designed to keep Florida safe "from shore to digital shore." The site, SafeFlorida.net, includes separate sections for young children, teenagers and parents, all aimed at promoting internet safety.
Bryant said his stepchildren, the oldest of whom is nine, have yet to really explore the internet, but he knows that day is coming. He and Melissa will certainly introduce SafeFlorida.net in their household, and Bryant will continue to work with the Attorney General's office in whatever capacity they ask. All the motivation he needs is there waiting for him every time he sees his son and his stepchildren.
"They just want to play and have fun," he said. "To see [them] smile, you can't imagine that somebody wants to hurt that. Anything I can do to help facilitate this program, I'm going to do. It's a privilege for me to be a part of this."