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Child exploitation cases nearly double during COVID-19 pandemic, experts say

PBSO: Cyber tip leads to arrest of Palm Beach County elementary school teacher
File photo of a laptop keyboard, Sept. 15, 2022.jpg
Posted at 3:08 PM, Sep 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-15 17:16:23-04

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — A Palm Beach County second grade teacher facing multiple charges of possessing child pornography has bonded out of jail, records show.

Edward Parker, 54, was a teacher in the School District of Palm Beach County since the early 90s and was well-liked from what parents have said.

Palm Beach County teacher Edward Parker, 54, arrested by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office on Aug. 31, 2022.jpg
Palm Beach County teacher Edward Parker, 54, arrested by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office on Aug. 31, 2022.

News of Parker's arrest on Aug. 31 shook the community, so WPTV wanted to learn more about how these types of allegations are uncovered and investigated.

Cyber crime experts on Thursday told WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind they saw a big increase in child exploitation cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parker appeared in a Palm Beach County courtroom instead of a classroom earlier this month, after the Timber Trace Elementary School teacher was arrested for possessing dozens of files showing sexual performance by a child.

According to his arrest report, Parker admitted to looking at child pornography, but told investigators it was "art" and "not real." He denied downloading it.

WATCH: Palm Beach County teacher says child porn he viewed was 'art,' arrest report states

Palm Beach County elementary school teacher says child pornography he viewed was 'art,' arrest report states

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education

"Any time there is an image of child sexual abuse material, information about sex trafficking, grooming, luring, any type of child exploitation, those reports are sent here to the NCMEC," said Callahan Walsh, who works at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Those social media platforms, those ISPs, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, you name it, they are federally mandated to report these instances to our cyber tipline."

Walsh's parents started the organization after his brother, Adam Walsh, was abducted and murdered as a child.

A report to the organization's cyber tipline in June kickstarted the investigation into Parker.

"When we take in these reports, we add value to them using our resources and network of capabilities to add value and then turn these reports back over to the appropriate law enforcement agency," Walsh said.

Parker's arrest report said this tip came from the chat application in Google, which reported a user, later identified at Parker, uploading 50 files that depicted the "sexual abuse of children."

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office's SWAT Team and Cyber Crimes Unit then executed a search warrant at Parker's Jupiter Farms home on Aug. 31.

"This isn't the first apprehension we've had with a cyber tipline report making it over to PBSO," Walsh said. "They do a great job of taking our reports and really acting on them in a very proactive way."

Walsh said these exploitation cases skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone had more screen time.

"In 2019, we went from 16 million reports to 21 million reports, from 21 million reports in 2020 to 29 million reports in 2021," Walsh said. "So almost double the amount of reports in just two years. These numbers are unacceptable."

In a written statement to parents on Aug. 31, Principal Kathy Pasquariello said Parker had worked at Timber Trace Elementary School since 2002, but "will not be returning to our campus."

Pasquariello added there's "no indication that this alleged criminal activity directly involved the school or students."

Timber Trace Elementary School in Palm Beach Gardens on Aug. 31, 2022.jpg
Timber Trace Elementary School in Palm Beach Gardens on Aug. 31, 2022.

The School District of Palm Beach County said Parker was administratively reassigned to a non-student contact position pending the outcome of an administrative investigation.

"We talk about background checks all the time. But background checks are only good for people who have already been caught before," Walsh said. "So the really good ones who haven't been caught, that's why they are even more dangerous."

Callahan said parents can use Parker's arrest as a teachable moment, though often uncomfortable.

"It's really about the community coming together to talk about these issues," Walsh said. "Often times these issues can be dark and people often want to shy away from them. But they do happen in our society. We need to be aware of them, we need to be vigilant, and we need to make sure we are safeguarding our children, because every child deserves a safe childhood."

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also takes tips from the general public if you see something suspicious. For more information on the organization's cyber tipline, click here.

WPTV on Thursday reached out to Parker's public defender for a comment, but has not heard back.