By Joe Beck
A Facebook page focused on alerting people to troublesome incidents involving strangers approaching children hasn't solved any crimes so far, but it is annoying the Front Royal Police Department and an activist in the Marlow Heights neighborhood.
The growing tensions over the page has led to a meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Marlow Heights Baptist Church, 517 Braxton Road, Room 202, to discuss persistent rumors and misinformation critics have attributed to the Facebook page Keep Our Kids Safe - Spread the Word.
The page was created early this month, days after the Front Royal Police Department fielded a report of a man in a vehicle approaching a girl and asking her twice if she needed a ride. The girl, who was walking near the intersection of South Royal Avenue and South Street, rejected both requests and moved on unharmed.
Within days, Keep Our Kids Safe - Spread the Word had attracted more than 1,500 group members. But the page's popularity also led Front Royal Police Chief Norman Shiflett to issue a statement blaming the page for the spread of rumors and dubious information about the threat of child abductions in the community.
Kirstin Iden agreed with Shiflett and asked the police to appear at Thursday's meeting to talk about what she called "a lot of speculation and unconfirmed rumors flying around."
Iden, a Marlow Heights block captain, organized a neighborhood watch group late last year and a Facebook page that is accessible only to neighborhood residents.
"It really upsets me when I see rumors being spread so quickly," Iden said in an interview Monday. "I just thought it was important."
Janice Hart, community relations specialist with the police department, will attend the meeting, something she already does with Iden's neighborhood watch gatherings.
Hart said she had seen enough on the Keep Our Kids - Spread the Word Facebook page to persuade her that a special meeting was needed to calm nerves in Marlow Heights, the site of at least one of the incidents that has drawn social media attention.
A posting under the name of Debbie Williams Stonebreaker Friday announced that messages should be sent to the page managers, who will post them "once confirmed that a call to the police has been made."
A Facebook post on Saturday by Dawn Reynolds, who helped found Keep Our Kids Safe - Spread the Word, acknowledged the controversy.
"There have been many posts on this page that could not confirmed," Reynolds wrote, adding that, "when we contacted some of the people making posts, they would not return our emails in which we asking if reports had been filed, etc. We do not want this page to turn into a "rumor mill.'"
Reynolds and Stonebreaker could not be reached for direct comment.
Hart said no one has been arrested and police have no more recent incidents of troubling adult behavior around children to report. She added that she was especially concerned about postings that referred to some recent suspicious activities as attempted abductions.
"That went on Facebook," Hart said. "That is totally not true. I'm totally anxious to squelch that kind of information. It fosters panic when there is no reason for it."
Hart said parents should talk to children about "stranger danger" scenarios, adding, "we just want parents to have a dialogue with their children to be safe. Certainly don't get into a vehicle with a strange person."
Hart said planning for Thursday's meeting depends on whether Hurricane Sandy passes through the area in the next few days without major disruptions to electrical power or property damage.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org