Middle schoolers could face charges for alleged 'sexting'

January 29, 2010 6:31:40 AM PST
Authorities in northwest Indiana are deciding whether to charge two middle school students accused of sexual texting.The students allegedly used their cell phones to exchange explicit photos of each other.

The case involves a 12-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl, both students at Ben Franklin Middle School in Valparaiso.

Prosecutors nationwide are struggling with sexting cases. When an adult takes or sends pictures of a nude child, it's illegal. But what happens when a child takes a nude or inappropriate picture and sends it? Is that a crime? Is there a criminal intent?

Nude photos of minors are child pornography, according to Porter County prosecutor Brian Gensel. But the case does not involve adults. It involves two middle school students who allegedly took nude pictures of themselves and swapped them by texting.

"Young people, teenagers involved in this, don't realize the serious nature of it because the offense, as an adult, is punishable by substantial prison time," said Gensel.

The case unfolded last week when a teacher at Ben Franklin Middle School heard a 13-year-old girl's phone ring in class. When she confiscated it, authorities say the girl began to cry, saying she needed to delete a 12-year-old boy's nude picture, which he had sent to her.

Prosecutors say criminal charges are possible.

"The largest danger to teens who are not meaning to break the law is that these images, they are posted on cell phones, they are posted on the Internet, and they never go away," said Gensel.

Sometimes, the pictures can go viral.

In December, a 15-year-old girl sent a nude photo to another student at Plainfield East High School, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago. Authorities estimate half of the school's 1,300 students have seen the picture. The case is still under investigation. And, along with having education seminars at the school, the Will County state's attorney is pushing an online education campaign with fliers.

Parents can use their own keyboard and computer to track their child's phone. Security software is available and can be downloaded onto a phone. Parents can read their text messages, see their pictures, even map their location.

Daniel Hoffman, the software's co-creator and the father of an 8-year-old son, says we'll see more of this security software for phones and mobile devices during the next year.

"When you buy a phone for your child that a carrier would say, 'Would you care to have the parental control software?' I can tell you from my own experience, I don't know a parent who wouldn't want that," said Hoffman.

Most prosecutors want teens to learn a lesson rather than face a felony. Generally, that means probation.