From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 9, Number 2 - April 2, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Kids, cameras, sexual crimes

by Derek Farr

Perhaps no issue perplexes adults more than teenage “sexting.”

The unpleasant-sounding moniker describes the act of photographing oneself (or others) in various states of undress then delivering it, via text message or email, to other people.

Typically it involves a young woman delivering nude pictures of herself to a love/lust interest.

Elementally the act is probably as old as the photograph itself, but in the modern world, the ubiquitous cell-phone camera has seduced ever-younger women into immodesty.

“We’re not going to tolerate it,” said Sublette County Attorney Lucky McMahon. “We’re going to take it seriously and there will be serious repercussions.”

That warning is not without legal reinforcement.

In at least four states, kids are facing charges of child pornography and sexual exploitation of a minor for photographing and/or relaying nude images.

In Wyoming, an indecent self-portrait isn’t a crime but anybody possessing or disseminating an explicit image of a minor could face child-pornography charges; including minors themselves.

Sweeping the nation

The cases come from every corner of the nation. In Seattle two 16-year-olds took photos of themselves in the shower. Days later the images swept through their high school before reaching the principal. The girls were suspended from the cheer squad, and their parents are suing the school.

In Pennsylvania, a Wyoming County District Attorney is threatening to bring child-pornography charges against two teens who took pictures of themselves in their bras and sent the photos to some boys who – you guessed it – distributed the images to the school.

Those are just two of thousands of cases that have police, prosecutors, parents and principals shaking their heads.

A recent poll by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmo Girl magazine showed that one in five teen girls have either electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves.

Serious charges

“The way the (Wyoming) statues are worded, if you send or transmit a picture of a juvenile in a pornographic manor, it is child pornography,” McMahon said

That leaves very little ambiguity, but with juveniles there is breathing room.

The juvenile court system allows prosecutors some discernment concerning these matters.

McMahon said a sexting case doesn’t automatically produce a felony charge, “But they could be charged with that,” explaining, “If the facts of the case merit it, I will prosecute as child pornography.”

In addition, a perpetrator can be forced to register as a sexual offender, which would have long-lasting detrimental effects to a young person’s future.

But McMahon isn’t interested in throwing the book at Sublette County’s first sexting case, she would rather focus on being proactive.

“What needs to happen is the teenagers need to know it’s a crime,” she said.

But the threat of criminal charges is only the beginning.

Bad judgment

While bad judgment is as much of being a teenager as braces and acne, the potential consequences of sexting are far reaching.

Unlike the days of the Polaroid camera where a single image could be more easily managed, digital images can be duplicated in perpetuity.

In Cincinnati, Jesse Logan, an 18-year-old high school senior, sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend. Shortly after, the two broke up and the ex-boyfriend sent the photos to Logan’s classmates. For Logan, the ridicule, harassment and name-calling was intolerable. Last year she hanged herself in her bedroom.

For teens, there is a great deal at stake: criminal prosecution, social persecution and other more sinister depravations.

Canada’s Centre for missing and Exploited Children estimates 10 percent of online child-porn images were self-produced.

And there is the growing concern that sexting will become another high-tech tool for child molesters such as in Massachusetts where a youth soccer coach allegedly sent a photo of his genitals to a 13-year-old girl’s cell phone.

After being fired, he was court ordered to wear a GPS device and stay away from minors: a small relief to already-anxious parents.

A whole new ball game

Believe it or not, the problem has found its way to Sublette County.

Pinedale Middle School had an incident a while ago.

That prompted Principal Kevan Kennington to breach the topic with his seventh and eighth graders.

Sublette resource officer Joe Ahlstrom was invited to the school and he talked about the legalities of sexting.

“He really hit hard: if somebody sent you something, don’t send it on,” Kennington said.

Ahlstrom instructed students to immediately erase such images.

At Big Piney High School, Principal William Schlepp said the school has a policy that cell phones should not be used during school hours. According to Schlepp, those are just standard rules.

But in the case of sexting, “Those types of things are a whole new ball game,” he said. “We’d be looking at suspensions, expulsions and the law would be involved.”

He said nothing like that has emerged from his school but, “A lot of times we’re the last ones to hear anything.”

Parenting 401

It’s no secret that new technologies have altered our world. Cell phones, once the exclusive domain of adults, entered children’s hands as safety devices. For the first time in history, parents were able to reach their children virtually everywhere they went. Ironically, it’s those same safety devices that are creating the potential for so much harm.

Unlike some problems that are relegated to the city, the country or the suburbs, sexting has become an issue anywhere children are paired with camera-bearing cell phones.

And that’s virtually everywhere.

“I would probably agree that somebody’s doing it (locally),” said Sublette County Sheriff Bardy Bardin. “If it’s on television and being talked about, they are probably doing it.”

Like usual, it’s the adults who are catching up to the children.

At the recent Western States Sheriff Conference in Reno, Bardin said, “This wasn’t on the radar at all.”

It’s no surprise. It’s a new, uncomfortable and complicated topic that straddles a parent’s disciplinary domain and the legal system’s obligation.

It is also nuanced beyond a simple answer.

For instance, why does the first amendment protect a sexting 18-year-old while a 16-year-old may be brought up on child pornography charges?

The answer may be difficult to articulate for teenaged ears.

Unfortunately, the issue has grown beyond a novel social anomaly into a topic that presents kids with a new set of hazards – as if they didn’t have enough already – in their quest for a safe, healthy transformation from child to adult.

One thing is for certain; community leaders are unanimous in their prognoses. Bardin, Schlepp, Kennington and McMahon all agree that a strong parental presence will guide children through the obstacles of adolescence – and sexting is no exception.

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