Sexting not uncommon among teens in Douglas County, DA says, but consequences differ on case-by-case basis

After law enforcement learned of a “sexting” ring possibly involving hundreds of high school and middle school students in the small Colorado town of Cañon City earlier this month, officials are grappling with disciplinary actions.

According to the Denver Post, Cañon City officials are debating the best ways to deal with the teens implicated in the scandal in which minors allegedly snapped nude images of themselves and shared them with others. The issue: Do you charge kids with crimes that could require them to register as sex offenders, or do you order therapy and counseling to correct the problem?

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said those are questions his office considers often. Branson said he sees a case involving minors exchanging sexually explicit images of one another “at least once every other week.”

By statute, he is not allowed to elaborate on cases that are handled in juvenile court. Because those cases are sealed, concrete numbers and outcomes are not public record.

When it comes to Kansas law, though, there is “no gray area” as to whether the act of exchanging sexually explicit photos of those under 18 is illegal, Branson said.

If one “persuades,” “entices” or “coerces” a minor to take a sexually explicit photo, that’s sexual exploitation of a child. If one asks a minor to send a sexually explicit photo, that’s electronic solicitation. If a minor takes a sexually explicit photo of his or herself, that’s creation of child pornography. If he or she sends it to someone else, that’s distribution of child pornography.

But there is a “gray area” when it comes to prosecutorial discretion, Branson said. Each case must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“The gray comes in within our discretion,” Branson said. “Is this conduct that needs to be addressed as criminal?”

Branson said the scenarios behind minor-sexting cases he sees in Douglas County vary. In some cases, a teenager might coerce another to send another a nude photo, or one sends an explicit photo to another person unsolicited. Others may involve pictures or videos of minors engaged in some unlawful sexual act.

In some instances, the person depicted knowingly agrees to be recorded under the condition of the other party promising to delete the image. In others, those depicted are not aware they are being recorded.

Overall, Branson said it’s boys who are predominantly reported in sexting cases. Branson said there are “very few cases where females are sharing” sexually explicit photos of boys.

“Usually females get unwanted photos,” Branson said. “A male will share a photo of himself in an effort to entice the female to share back.”

Lawrence criminal defense attorney Sarah Swain said the disparity between genders charged is unfair. Swain said she has represented “dozens” of teenaged boys across Kansas “who have only received a (sexually explicit) picture and are facing really harsh penalties.”

Swain said an 18-year-old high school senior who receives nude photos of a 14-year-old high school freshman could face a sentence of 25 years to life in prison and have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

“It’s only the boys who ever get charged,” Swain said. “That’s not equal protection under the law.”

Swain said equal protection under the law in her opinion would mean that both girls and boys would be prosecuted in such cases.

“If a girl takes a picture of herself, that’s a crime. Then, when she sends that photo, that’s also a crime,” Swain said. “But she’s never going to be charged.”

Branson said various factors weigh in on what the proper resolution to a case might be. For example, whether the child intimidated or threatened another for the image may be a “red flag,” Branson said, and age difference between the subjects may also come into play.

For some, it may mean facing criminal charges, but for others, it may be best to direct the child to an educational program or counseling. In the past, Branson’s office and the Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center, formerly GaDuGi, had even teamed up to create a program for juveniles found to be involved in sexting to learn about appropriate conduct and healthy relationships.

“We’re not interested in making every juvenile a felon,” Branson said.

That education extends into the classroom in Lawrence public middle schools, as sexting is addressed in human sexuality curriculum, Lawrence Schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle said. The students are taught about appropriate electronic communication using the National Human Sexuality Education Standards to “provide clear, consistent and straightforward guidance on sexuality education,” Boyle said.

These National Standards include:

  • Describe the advantages and disadvantages of communicating using technology and social media
  • Analyze the impact of technology and social media on friendships and relationships
  • Demonstrate effective skills to negotiate agreements about the use of technology in relationships
  • Develop a plan to stay safe when using social media
  • Describe strategies to use social media safely, legally and respectfully

Boyle said that if and when school administrators are made aware of such conduct between students, “our schools handle any disciplinary matters on a case-by-case basis and work with law enforcement when appropriate.”

Lawrence Schools this fall have also been working with the Lawrence Police Department presenting informational sessions for parents on digital safety, Boyle said. So far this school year, the district has held meetings at South and Southwest Middle Schools. They plan to hold two more meetings at Liberty Memorial Central and West Middle Schools next semester.

“These presentations include information about the permanency of photos shared on the Internet and potential legal consequences for anyone sending and receiving nude photos of minors, as that could be considered distribution of child pornography,” Boyle said.

Branson said parents should not be afraid to have “frank and honest discussions” with their children about such issues. Questions like “Why is this person asking for this photo?” “Is this a healthy relationship?” and “What are reasons you should not (sext)?” are good conversation points for parents to discuss.

“We have to recognize that kids do this stuff, but we have to impress upon them the consequences of their actions,” Branson said. “Once you press ‘send,’ it’s there forever.”