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Sexting cases hit Bedford schools

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By Tom Wilmoth

“Sexting,” a growing nationwide problem that involves using cell phones to transmit sexually explicit pictures, has cropped into Bedford County schools and four Staunton River High School students now face criminal charges as a result.

    Though the details behind the charges aren’t being released because the students involved are juveniles, authorities will confirm that three SRHS students face misdemeanor charges related to transmitting inappropriate photographs through a cell phone and one student faces a felony charge. If that student is convicted of a felony related to the possession or transmission of child pornography, it could result in the student having to register as a sex offender.

    Authorities state that as technology advances, so also do the harmful uses of it.

    Under the law, anyone who possesses, manufactures or distributes sexually explicit photographs of someone under age of 18 can be found guilty of charges related to the possession and possibly distribution of child pornography, according to Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz. “Prosecutors all over the nation are struggling with it,” he said of the problem. “It’s a fad that has caught on.”

    Krantz said the issue surrounding “sexting” can take on a lot of different forms — from  jokingly trying to “moon” someone via cyberspace to a  girlfriend  sending a  provocative picture  to  a boyfriend; from someone redistributing an inappropriate photograph they’ve received to producing and distributing highly-explicit scenes or videos.

     “This is just a dangerous activity,” Krantz said. “This can come back to haunt them.”

    When the incident at SRHS was discovered by school authorities, it was turned over to the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office for investigation. It’s not the first incident in Bedford County, authorities state. Over the past 18 months there have been several, with apparently at least one involving middle school students.

    The school system’s cell phone policy allows students to have the phones at school, but they must remain out of sight and turned off during the instructional day, according to Ryan Edwards, public relations coordinator for Bedford County Public Schools. “They’re happening with more regularity as technology advances,” he said of sexting incidents involving students.

    He said cell phone usage is primarily a parental responsibility. He said students are allowed to have their cell phones at school “under the assumption that should an extreme emergency occur that cell phone could help save lives.”

    “When the phones are taken to school, we do feel that we have some responsibility to make sure that those students have been talked to at home and are aware of the legalities and the discipline that is out there if they don’t follow the rules,” Edwards said.

    Krantz said that normally an incident begins with a girl, in some sort of undress, taking a picture using a computer Web cam or more frequently a cell phone camera. That picture, he said, is often then sent to someone, usually a boyfriend. What happens to the picture after that initial step can turn into a much bigger problem, he said.

    Krantz said, as a prosecutor, he must determine what the intent was when the picture was taken to determine what, if any, charges should be filed. He said unless that person had the intent and foreknowledge that the initial step involved the distribution of child pornography, he is reluctant to place felony charges. He said it must be determined what to do “with these children who are exploiting themselves.”

    “I am probably giving them more benefit of the doubt than the law requires me to do,” he said in considering possible charges. Krantz said he has to consider each case individually.

    He said the difference in the case can often be what happens to a picture after its initial transmission. The rationale is to try and create a deterrent effect so that those receiving an inappropriate text have every incentive not to retransmit it, he said. He said retransmission of a picture could mean the difference between a misdemeanor or a felony charge, adding that even in the case of an action that constitutes a felony, it could be reduced when remorsefulness and a willingness to learn is shown. “They should  at least understand that they better not redistribute them,” he said.

     Still, Krantz said there is also a public safety issue at stake that must be considered.

    He said many times dozens of photographs may be transmitted and once they are sent the girl who took the pictures of herself has no control over what happens to them. Too often, Krantz said, those pictures end up on the Internet and can quickly become part of someone’s child pornography collection, adding the initial purpose for which the photograph might have been taken is long forgotten by an industry that preys on children.

    “Those pictures are bought and sold (for child pornography),” he said. “It’s a billion dollar industry.”

    And the girl can quickly lose control of how that photograph is used. He said that invariably, when an adult is arrested for possessing child pornography “they have in their possession some of the same (types of) images that started out as a sexting situation.”

    “This is just a dangerous activity,” Krantz said. “It can come back to haunt them. ...What’s done with a juvenile mindset is now out there permanently, they’ve basically put a bulls eye on their back.”

    Krantz said that can include unknowingly setting themselves up for a predator. Such photographs can easily become “currency” in the child porn trade, he said.

    When you take a picture of yourself and send it out, it can become the equivalent of putting it up on a billboard and saying, “Hey, look at me,” Krantz said.

    In addition, Krantz said child predators often use the pictures to influence other children to “recreate” those images.

    He believes there are several issues at stake. “The child predators will capture that information and use it to groom a juvenile that’s in their control, stating, ‘look how much fun this young girl is having,’” he said. “You don’t want what you’ve done as a prank or to ‘increase’ your relationship with your boyfriend, to be used to victimize another child. That’s the seriousness of this.”

    Parents, he said, must be educated about the dangers involved with cell phone and Internet use by children. “We wouldn’t give a juvenile keys to a car and turn them loose on the interstate,” Krantz stated. “But we tend to turn them loose on the Internet. There are people out there who just don’t have the (children’s) best interests at heart.”

    He said parents have a responsibility to sit down with their children and explain to them the dangers involved.

    The school system, working in conjunction with the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, has made efforts to reach out to both students and parents. Schools have run public service announcements to their students and cell phone education has been included in technology classes.

    Sgt. David Marsh of the BCSO, said school resource officers work with the schools and the PTAs to get the message — “think before you post” — out. The officers hand out cards stressing both awareness and consequences of posting inappropriate or sexually provocative pictures. “Teens should never post pictures they wouldn’t want posted around their schools for everyone to see,” the card from the BCSO states. “Once you post it, send it or text it, you can’t take it back.”

    The card warns that if sending a sexually explicit picture ends up in a felony conviction it could, in addition to having that person have to register as a sex offender, prohibit that person from registering to vote, potentially deny them employment opportunities or admission to college and keep them from being able to own a firearm. “A conviction will follow you the rest of your life,” the card states.

    Marsh points out in his presentations that parents have the right to read and limit the emails of their children, the right to access and limit any chat room that a child under their control may want to visit and have the right to limit where and when they access the Internet. The presentation points out that a picture doesn’t have to be of a person in full undress to be considered as child pornography.

    “The majority of them know they shouldn’t be doing it,” Marsh said of “sexting” by students. He said parents should notify authorities if they find it. “We want to educate the parents as much as we can to stop it.”

    And in the end there is a greater issue at stake, Krantz said: the sexualization of teenagers.

    “These are not innocent images,” Krantz said. He said what a teenager might have once tried to say in a love letter now gets sent through a provocative text. “We have been very successful in sexualizing our children. ...One of the saddest things  is that children can’t be children any more.”

    And now, he said, through the technology of cell phones, Web cams and the Internet, the youth have been given an avenue in which they can sexualize themselves and others. “The monster is beginning to feed itself,” he said. “It’s part of society today.”

    Krantz said at some point society must reach the point of saying “enough is enough.” But he fears that’s not the case. “I’m not sure it’s going to go away. I’m afraid it’s going to get worse.”