School district educates parents about teen social media use, uptick in sexually explicit messages

At a parent social media night for the Lawrence school district, law enforcement officers wanted attendees to know that preteens and teens sending sexually explicit images is an issue in Lawrence.

“What I’m going to be talking about is stuff going on here in Lawrence, Kansas. Cases that I’m seeing,” said Det. David Garcia, who is a juvenile investigator with the Lawrence Police Department. “…We do have a local problem with it.”

Garcia told attendees at the parent night at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School on Tuesday that at any given time, he and the two other detectives in his department are working about 50 cases each concerning sexual exploitation of a minor. In most of those, Garcia said, both the suspect and the victim are minors, and recently, those involved are getting younger.

“Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is, but it’s been my experience that the ages are starting to get younger of when the cases are coming in,” Garcia said.

Possessing or distributing a sexually explicit image of a minor is a felony under Kansas law. Garcia said a common situation involves photos that are sent between two minors in a romantic relationship, but are then distributed widely after a break-up.

The Lawrence school district has responded to those trends with an education campaign called digital citizenship. Starting about a year ago, the Lawrence school district began hosting the informational meetings about safe and responsible social media for parents and students at the middle school level. The parent nights are followed by separate presentations to students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

This school year, social media education was done in the fall semester at Southwest and South, and Garcia said he has already noticed a decline in the number of incidents at those schools.

Once the juvenile investigation department files its report, it is up to the District Attorney’s office to decide whether charges will be filed. Cases in juvenile court are sealed, but Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson previously told the Journal-World that he sees such cases “at least once every other week.”

Denise Johnson, the district’s curriculum coordinator for health and wellness, said that information about appropriate social media use and the legal consequences of sending sexually explicit messages is part of the National Sexual Education Standards followed by the district. After the presentations by law enforcement officers, students also meet with school counselors for small lessons. Johnson told attendees that students have been taking the sessions seriously.

“The students listen, they’re really paying attention and they ask questions,” she said.

Garcia said that one of the most important things parents can do is to have a frank conversation with their preteen or teen, set expectations of how the device should be used, and be clear that the device will be looked at by the parent.

“And I know that’s easier said than done, but why I’m passionate about it is that one click of a send can change their life forever,” he said.

While having those conversations and balancing teens’ privacy with their safety is difficult, Garcia said that is better than the alternative of investigating juveniles, permanently seizing their devices and potentially filing charges.

“I know it’s not easy, I’ll admit that, but it’s harder to investigate than to have these conversations,” Garcia said.

The last parent social media night of the school year will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at West Middle School, 2700 Harvard Road. The sessions last about an hour and are open to any parent in the Lawrence school district.