Alice Campbell Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
Text messaging constitutes a major part of most teens' lives, but there's a new version of the communication standby that's causing problems sexting. "We don't get a lot of complaints, b u t we ' ve ha d s ome, " J e r r y Vandersloot, Havre High School principal, said after a report of a 17-year-old Whitefish boy's arrest earlier this year for sending explicit photographs to a 15-year-old girl through cell phones. Even with low numbers of complaints, Vandersloot shared, he's worried. Students don't understand the "foreverness" of their actions, he said. "Once that picture's out there in cyber world it's out there forever." The texting of i n a p p r o p r i a t e images can lead to serious legal consequences. "We have not had any reports that have been referred to us for p r o s e c u t i o n , " County Attorney Gina Dahl said, adding, "I would venture to guess it's been going on here as well." If reported, perpetrators of sexting face charges under Montana Code Annotated 45-5-625 that covers the sexual abuse of children. The statute delineates what constitutes the offense in the following way: " ... (a person) photographs, films, videotapes, develops or duplicates the photographs, films, or videotapes, or records a child engaging in sexual conduct, actual or simulated ... ." The written code continues: " ... (a person) processes, develops, prints, publishes, transports, distributes, sells, exhibits, or advertises any visual or print medium, including a medium by use of electronic communication in which a child is engaged in sexual conduct, actual or simulated ... possesses any visual or print medium, including a medium by use of electronic communication ... ." That electronic medium covers a variety of sources including wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectronic or photo-optical systems. Because cell phones capture images and then can transfer them to others, they fall under the definition. "It's certainly becoming more and more prevalent, or at least more and more reported," Dahl said. Sheriff Don Brostrom said there have been no reports of sexting brought to his attention. The investigations of reports would follow regular procedures with his office gathering as much information as possible and then the county attorney's office determining charges, he said. Dahl concurred with Vandersloot that it poses problems in schools. "It really is becoming a concern among teachers and school administration and law enforcement as well," she said. Most of the time, "kids don't really understand what they're doing," Dahl said, adding that they don't realize that regardless of age, they can still be held accountable. "If a youth is found to be a delinquent youth, the youth may be placed on probation and ordered to follow conditions which may include restitution, community service, counseling services, medical and psychological evaluations, payment of court costs including attorney fees, and home arrest," Dahl explained in an e-mail. Delinquent youth also face other penalties and court oversight, she wrote. "In the case of a delinquent youth who has been adjudicated for a sexual or violent offense, the youth may be Required to register as a sexual or violent offender pursuant to the Sexual or Violent Offender Registration Act," she continued. The legal punishments for adults generally 18 years old and older vary, but include terms of up to life imprisonment, some without eligibility for parole for 25 years, fines up to $100,000 and the required completion of a sexual offender treatment program. Consequences exist at the school level as well. Dennis Parman, Havre schools superintendent, said that last year after an incident where a student sent an inappropriate message en masse, law enforcement was notified and the offense was treated the same as distribution of a hard copy. District policy severely limits cell phone use in the schools. Over the last few years, school board trustees implemented several changes in the policy that allowed for stricter enforcement, and that has helped the overall cell phone issues in schools, Parman said. Still, effects of text messaging creep into the system, he said. Often, bullying and harassment happen via text messaging outside of school, but then the involved parties bring the issues into the schools, he added, causing school personnel to mediate. "I don't think they understand the implications ... ," Parman said. Dustin Kraske, Havre Middle School principal, said, "I don't think our kids even understand that they're sending pornography when they send naked pictures from one person to another," adding that the ease of sending text messages in general takes away the sense of seriousness. He said he sees a program to educate parents, students, teachers and administration about cell phone use and what implications of inappropriate use are, similar to the time spent teaching about appropriate computer use, in the next few years. "I would like to believe ... that (students) don't understand the severity of what they're doing, and if we can teach appropriate use, then perhaps we're making some progress on it," he said. Lindsay Osborne, with the county attorney's office, has already spoken to personnel, Kraske said. But he wants to see it taken a step further to include the school community and have someone from outside the schools to do the talking "so maybe it would hit a little harder on our kids, because it's not coming from our school. "With any luck at all, it will hit home with our kids that 'I can't do this'," he added. Kraske said he thinks the schools are taking a proactive stance and that the stance has helped, but, "What will be the next thing? I think we need to continue to be proactive," he said. Repeated calls to the Havre Police Department seeking comments were not returned.