NEW PALESTINE — Hancock County prosecutors and probation officers are taking their presentations on the dangers of sexting out into the community.
They hope spreading the word will prompt conversations on the topic between parents and teens.
Last fall, law enforcement leaders began visiting county high schools to give lectures in health classes to remind students that some online and text interactions could be considered illegal and result in criminal charges for those involved.
They’ve visited all four school districts and plan continue giving the same presentation in high schools in the coming semesters. But now, they’re inviting parents to hear the same speech, hoping they’ll in turn educate their children and keep them from falling victim to sex crimes.
Sexting — the act of trading sexually explicit images and text messages, usually by phone or through social media — landed upwards of 50 young people in trouble last year.
And even though the majority of those students were pulled in for meetings with local juvenile probation officers rather than charged criminally, it prompted local leaders to forge a partnership with area schools.
Now, they want to bring parents in on the fight, too, said Josh Sipes, Hancock County’s chief probation officer.
Sipes, Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton and a representative from Alternatives Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting domestic violence and sexual assault, visited New Palestine Town Hall recently to give the first of what they hope will be many community-centered presentations on the topic.
They’re in talks with police in Fortville and Greenfield to bring the anti-sexting presentation into those communities as well, though specifics haven’t been finalized.
The roughly 90-minute presentation teaches listeners about an array of sex crimes teens and young adults most often fall victim to, and gives information on where to turn for help after being assaulted or mistreated. Prosecutors and local probation officers also speak on what can happen to the perpetrators of sex crimes.
And wrapped in this is a warning about sexting: one text can send you to jail.
Parents need to heed that warning, as well, and talk to their children about making good choices, Sipes said.
“We need to educate the parents so that they can educate their kids,” he said.
Sipes told a crowd in New Palestine that, when visiting schools, he tries to impress upon kids how serious of a crime sexting can be.
One inappropriate photo of an underage classmate found on a cellphone could land a student with a felony charge of possession of child pornography, Sipes said. And the counts can add up quickly if police find a student has multiple photos. Too many counts, and juvenile probation officers will recommend a minor be waived into adult court. Then, a student can be facing time in an adult prison facility, he said.
“The consequences are huge,” Sipes said.
New Palestine Police Chief Bob Ehle said sexting cases involving teens are some of the most frustrating to investigate because each seems to follow the same scenario.
Typically, a boy and girl have been dating and engaging is sexting, he said. Then when the couple breaks up, one decides to send out all those photos and messages to his or her friends. It leads to a lot of hurt feelings and embarrassment along with the criminal investigation, Ehle said.
And parents often forget that, sometimes, the student they feel has been victimized is just as guilty of a crime, Ehle said. A minor who sends a lewd photo of themselves could be charged with disseminating child pornography, and face the same felony levels as the peer that’s now in possession of that photo, he said.
Asking questions of and maintaining an open dialog with teens is the best way to ensure they aren’t getting into trouble, officials said.
When someone new comes into a child’s life, parents shouldn’t be afraid to question that person, to find out who old they are and what the child is doing with that person. Monitoring kids’ behavior online, whether it’s with the help of a parental-control app on a smartphone or with regular check-ups, is also important.
“We don’t want the kids to feel like we’re out to get them, but we take these crimes seriously in Hancock County.” Sipes said, “We don’t want the victims.”