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In Teen Sexting Cases, Law and Digital Reality Clash

'Sexting' Study Finds Low Rate Among Young

When school officials in a rural Colorado community learned local students were collecting naked photos of one another, they had no choice but to notify the police and hand over hundreds of intimate images to law enforcement.

They say Colorado law classifies any explicit photos of minors as child pornography and requires educators to notify police the moment they learn of it. Now police and prosecutors are trying to determine if any crime was committed.

Across the United States, laws from the pre-smartphone era are increasingly colliding with the digitally saturated reality of today's schools.

Last year in North Carolina, two dating teens who exchanged nude selfies at the age of 16 were charged as were adults with a felony: sexual exploitation of a minor. Those charges were later reduced to misdemeanors following a public uproar.

This week, two 14-year-old boys in New York were charged after one of them was accused of recording the other having sex with a girl. As many as 20 students were suspended from another school, although not criminally charged, for watching it or sending it to friends.

And last week, 16 students in Tennessee were charged with sexual exploitation of a minor after exchanging explicit photos on their cellphones.

Schools challenged

Canon City School superintendent George Welsh said laws intended to protect youth from sexual predators have put the school in a bind. School officials say they can't even offer counseling to students in the case, because they would have to report those otherwise confidential conversations.

"You see the mess we're in, you know? So we have to watch out for the mental health needs of our children, yet we've kind of got a structure whereby they would be nuts to come and talk to us about it,'' Welsh said.

Students hid at least some of the photos using an app that looks like a calculator, and punched a series of numbers to reveal them. Prosecutors say their intent is not to file criminal charges against all the students, but rather to look for any adults or coercion involved.

Some students think the school overreacted, since laws also allow older teens to have sex with each other in some circumstances, even if they are forbidden from sending or receiving sexually explicit photos.

Canon City High School student Elizabeth Ellis, 18, said she believes teens will continue to share explicit images via cellphone no matter what the school does.

"We're not the only high school that does it, and we're not going to be the only one that gets found out,'' she said.

Law enforcement return

Some teens, parents and legal experts say law enforcement has to see the larger picture. One study found that 28 percent of teens sext, and child advocates warn against harsh measures for those who are caught.

Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston who did the study, sees sexting as a new form of flirting and said it mostly happens between teens who are in a relationship or want to be.

Distributing photographs to others or coercing people to share explicit photos of themselves is more serious and could merit a tougher response, he said.

Potentially allowing the entire world to see your most intimate photos is a real danger, but not one that should be punished criminally, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

"Sexting is a pretty dumb thing to do, but so is having sex at 14 in your parents' basement," she said.