One day, when Jeff was away from home, someone threw a mailbox through his front window.
“That’s when I got the camera,” he said, standing in the cafeteria of Rockburn Elementary School on Tuesday evening.
Jeff, who asked that his last name not be printed, not only installed a security camera on his property, but also a license plate tag reader.
He joined other parents from around Howard County on Tuesday to discuss child safety with members of the Howard County Police Department in the wake of .
Since December, there have been seven reports of suspicious strangers attempting to engage or acting suspicious near children, according to the police department.
“We don’t think any of them are related,” said Northern District Capt. Daniel Coon, and one has been resolved; a child didn’t recognize a neighbor who was offering a ride home.
That was good news to Marlene, who also did not want her last name used.
Marlene said she has two children, a 7 and 2-year-old. “Before tonight,” she said, “I thought we had one person trying to abduct children.”
Marlene, who has a student at Woodbine Elementary School, said she moved to Howard County because it was safe.
“And we do feel safe,” she said, “but incidents like this remind me no place is really safe.”
At the meeting, Community Resource Officer Bonita Linkins answered specific questions from parents and left them with some general tips.
One parent wanted to know if it was safer for him to talk on the phone with his child on a cell phone while he walked to school.
The answer, Linkins and Coon said, was an emphatic “no.” A kid-or adult-who is talking on the phone is not paying attention to his or her surroundings.
Coon added, “When people see young children with a cell phone or iPod out,” that makes them a robbery target as well.
One parent, however, asked Linkins to comment on a more general feeling of discordance between teaching kids about “stranger danger” and raising polite children.
“I’m confused,” he said. “I teach my kids to be friendly, kind, courteous … civil.” He said his children often see him talking to strangers around town.
How, he asked, does that jive with “stranger danger?”
“We’re not saying for your kids to go out and kick strangers in the shin,” Linkins said. Teach your kids to be polite at home, but when you’re out, “All that goes out the window. You have to survive.”
Linkins encouraged parents to call police if they spot something suspicious. The non-emergency number is 410-313-2200. In a pinch, though, she said not to hesitate before calling 911.
A small percentage of children who are abducted are taken by strangers- about 115 of the 58,000 non-family abductions in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children.
Coon said that as far as he knows, there has never been a child abduction in Howard County, though Linkins relayed the story of a 12-year-old girl who invited an older man over and was subsequently molested.
“If you have a computer in your house, that’s like having a criminal in your house,” Linkins said.
She urged parents to ban computers in kids’ bedrooms.
“That’s what I do," Linkins said.
Coon added that as social media becomes more integrated, it also becomes more dangerous. He warned parents about posting pictures of their children on Facebook, for example, where, depending on privacy settings, anyone could have access to the picture and the location it was taken.
Despite the maps and anecdotes and fears, however, Coon was quick to mention that in Howard County, children are generally safe.
Police, whether you see them or not, are out patrolling the streets, the Maryland Sex Offender Registry is available to the public online and, he said, community police officers are available to residents who have questions, concerns or fears.
“You all live in a very, very, very safe community.”
To contact your local community resource officer, visit the Howard County Police Department's community policing website.