Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sexting: Pennsylvania Teens Gone Wild

Beware Chambersburg, Pennsylvania:

Law enforcement and Chambersburg Area School District officials are still trying to determine how many students were involved a recent rash of "sexting" images that were forwarded to students in the first weeks of school in what by law can be defined as child pornography.

Don't you love the moral panic language? "A recent rash of sexting images." What exactly does that mean (a rash!)? Is sexting, like other status offenses, only a crime an adolescent can commit? Can adults be prosecuted for sexting (eeew)?

Officials from the Chambersburg Police Department, the Franklin County district attorney's office and the school district conducted a news conference Tuesday morning to discuss the incidents. Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit photos and content in text messages and through e-mail.

"There are photos of some young ladies that are in various stages of nudity," said Chambersburg Police Chief Dave Arnold.

Bret Beynon, Franklin County assistant district attorney who specializes in juvenile prosecution, said the only charges that would be applicable could be felony possession of child pornography, which could come with the classification of sex offender if found guilty. She said if the students involved were juveniles, the sentences would not have a minimum or maximum sentence if charges were filed and the students were found guilty.

However, they would remain on their public record for life and they would have to submit DNA to the Pennsylvania State Police database. "It would affect them for the rest of their lives," Beynon said.

I discussed this back in March, how sexting has become the new moral panic regarding adolescents and their behavior. To label a teen who is guilty of sending some smutty pictures of themselves a "child pornographer", and then put them on a sex offender registry for life, makes sense if you come from the knuckle-dragging school of "teach them kids a lesson."

But if you are upright and walking around, obviously this is the kind of extreme reaction which has more to do with media and political capital than it does serious law enforcement or a threat to the public order. In fact, according to their assistant DA, destroying evidence might even be the way to go.

Since the possible charge would be possession of child pornography, everyone involved could face the same charge whether they took the photograph, received it, or forwarded it. Beynon said a student who received a picture, immediately deleted it and notified authorities would not face charges. However, someone who received a photo and either saved or forwarded it to others could.
So, if you destroy evidence, you're good to go, but if you save the evidence, you're toast. Makes sense.

[Assistant School Superintendent Eric] Michael said school district officials are certain that none of the photographs were taken on school property, and school equipment was not used. Some of the photos could have been sent from student's phones while they were in school buildings, although the district prohibits students from using phones in school buildings during the class day.

Michael said that although cell phone use is banned, it's a difficult policy to police. "It used to be that students were going to the bathroom to smoke. Now they're going to the bathroom to text," he said.

Or perhaps they're just going to the bathroom.

As with strip searching juveniles for drugs, the "rash" of late 90's school shootings, and the "juvenile superpredator" syndrome from a few years ago, sexting is just another in a long of line of moral panics which occasionally sweep through the media, political world, and criminal justice system. They help reinforce the aging adult belief that "kids today" are far worse than we ever were. And of course, to borrow from the Who, the kids are alright.

It's the "adults today" who are worse off than ever before. The unforgiving culture we've created regarding the slightest adolescent transgression has led us to label teens who take naughty pictures of themselves "child pornographers," registering them for life as sex offenders, and prosecuting them for sexual abuse (of themselves). Teens are the last marginalized group out there for which it's safe for the media, politicians and adults to beat up with impunity.

Let's just hope I don't need to create a sub-category on sexting. I hope this will dissipate, but I'm probably wrong.

h/t Sentencing Law and Policy


Jay Livingston said...

Maybe it's only non-urban Pennsylvania.

When I blogged the Wyoming County story in March, I despaired over the lack of variety of tools (if all you have is a hammer, you treat everything as though it's a nail). But maybe in other towns, people have dealt with their concerns in ways that don't involve criminal statutes. So we never hear about those.

Todd Krohn said...

These kinds of stories, as a friend of mine pointed out to me in an email, also raise the question: where are the parents?

One of the mothers of an arrested teen said in the article she didn't even know what sexting was until the police called.

In our ongoing desire to criminalize childhood, law enforcement and school bureaucrats increasingly bypass the parents (who, once upon a time, were actually charged with the task of parenting their children), in favor of extreme applications of zero-tolerance policies and procedures.

Not only does this trivialize the law and law enforcement further in most teens eyes, it also trivializes real sex crimes related to underage kids.