HANCOCK COUNTY — The dangers of sexting will become a perennial topic in local health classes — with law enforcement officers leading the conversation about students’ exchange of inappropriate messages.
Local juvenile probation officers point to a recent case they say made them push county school districts to step up education efforts. Earlier this year, they were forced to bring about two dozen teens into their offices for meetings because of a single investigation of sexting — the act of trading sexually explicit images and text, usually by phone or through social media.
The investigation spanned the area, involving several school districts and spreading into neighboring counties. More than 25 middle and high school students were caught with inappropriate images of young classmates. Though prosecutors did not file criminal charges against the students involved in that particular investigation, as many as 12 other minors have been charged with child pornography possession in the last six months in unrelated cases.
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These instances prompted local officials to partner with each of the county high schools and arrange for a presentation to be given during health classes to teach students about the risk they take every time they snap a racy photograph and hit send.
They say students need to be reminded some of their online and text interactions could be considered illegal, resulting in criminal charges for those involved.
Hancock County Juvenile Probation Officer Josh Sipes recalls one local case in which a teen faced more than 100 counts because of the number of illicit images in his possession. Records from the case are sealed from the public because of the defendant’s age.
Studies have found that young people don’t realize the legal ramifications that can accompany underage sexting.
Researchers at Drexel University in Pennsylvania surveyed 175 undergraduates in 2014 about whether they engaged in sexting as a minor. The results showed 54 percent admitted to trading sexual messages when they were underage. Twenty-eight percent admitted to sending explicit images.
Sixty-one percent told surveys they were not aware such photographs are considered child pornography and that exchanging them could result in legal action, according to Drexel researchers.
The presentation now being giving in schools drives those points home in hopes of decreasing those statistics.
A representative from Alternatives Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting domestic violence and sexual assault, serves as the host, teaching students about an array of sex crimes that teens and young adults most often fall victim to — and where they can turn for help.
Prosecutors and local probation officers then tell students about what can happen to the perpetrators of those crimes, cautioning that victims often know those who harm them.
Wrapped in with talks of date rape drugs and teen dating violence is the warning about sexting: one text can send you to jail.
Anyone over the age of 18 — even those still in high school — can be charged with felony possession of child pornography if they are caught with an inappropriate picture of someone who is 17 or younger, Prosecutor Brent Eaton said. Those sending such images can be found guilty of disseminating child pornography, which is also a felony, he said.
A person’s age doesn’t always play a factor in charging such crimes, Eaton said: those under 18 can face juvenile charges that carry similar weight to the charges adults face, though the sentencing might be different.
And it doesn’t matter if the picture was given to a student by their younger boyfriend or girlfriend, Eaton said; any naked image of a minor is considered child pornography and is subject to criminal prosecution. If the sender of the image is under the age of 16, they cannot legally consent to sexual acts, which include sexting, he said.
These instances can have lasting ramifications, Eaton said.
An 18-year-old senior could be dating a 15-year-old freshman, and the two could engage in sexting during their relationship. If caught, the 18-year-old would be charged as an adult; and if found guilty, they could be forced to register as a sex offender, meaning they would be barred from coming onto school grounds and finishing out their education as planned, Eaton cited as an example.
Increased technology has made exchanging illicit text messages a more prominent part of American culture, and students aren’t immune to it, said Lisa Truitt, the assistant principal at Eastern Hancock middle and high schools.
Eastern Hancock, like many school districts, has taken steps to ensure students know appropriate internet use, Truitt said. School officials hold internet safety discussions at the beginning of each school year, and the school-provided computers and tablets students use for homework are equipped with monitoring devices that alert administrators to inappropriate images, language or searches, she said.
But instances of sexting are still brought to the school’s attention at times — proof, Truitt said, parents need to also play a key role in monitoring their kid’s cellphone and computers. The same disconnect, a “not me” mentality, exists with sexting as it does with any other teenage misstep, she said: every student thinks they won’t be the one to get caught.
When such an instance is brought to their attention, school officials review it to decide how best to proceed, Truitt said. Issues with cyber-bullying can be handled in-house; but if administrators believe a crime has been committed — like possession or dissemination of child pornography – they are required to make a report with police and the Indiana Department of Child Services, she said.
Probation officers take the lead in deciding what, if any, criminal charges will be filed against those under 18 who are caught with or sending illicit images, Sipes said.
Most often, they bring the child and their parents in for a meeting to talk about what happened. Depending on the child’s age — if they are too young to understand what they’ve done is criminal — the officer might decide to take a more therapeutic approach and rely on education to better the situation, to teach them rather than charge.
Creating an educational program for local high school students seemed like the best response following the big case filed earlier this year, Sipes said. As police dug into their investigation, as the list of the students involved garnered more than 25 names, each younger than the one before, it was clear a message, a warning, needed to be spread through local schools, he said.
If education doesn’t work, probation officers can ask prosecutors to move forward with legal action, Sipes said. Sexting can be a felony, and they want students to know they’ll crack down if necessary, he said.
“This is something that can follow them for the rest of their life,” Sipes said.