VALPARAISO | Two Ben Franklin Middle School students who Valparaiso police said were caught using their cell phones to exchange nude pictures of each other -- a practice called sexual texting or "sexting" -- are facing criminal charges.
A 13-year-old Valparaiso girl and a 12-year-old Valparaiso boy were referred to juvenile probation on charges of possession of child pornography and child exploitation. In adult court, the charges would carry a maximum penalty of 11 years in prison, but prosecutors expect the case to be handled in the juvenile system.
"Something needs to be done, but we think dealing with them through the juvenile court system is appropriate, so as not to saddle them with (consequences) from the adult system," Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel said.
In the adult system, convicted offenders face not only prison time but also having to register as a sex offender.
The case against the Valparaiso students came to light when the girl's phone went off during class Jan. 21 and the teacher confiscated it. The teacher told police the girl asked to delete something from the phone before it was turned over to the administration, but that request was denied.
The teacher said the girl began crying, saying she would get in trouble because the boy had sent her a dirty picture.
An investigation revealed the boy sent the girl an explicit photo of himself Jan. 17 and asked her to use her cellular phone to send back a similar picture of herself, which she did, police said. Police further found out the girl showed the picture of the boy to one of her friends.
Deputy Prosecutor Cheryl Polarek said young people don't understand the ramifications of texting nude pictures or posting certain material on social networking sites like Facebook. She said a nude picture could end up being shared with half the school and could get in the hands of people who seek out child pornography.
Even though it is illegal to send or possess nude pictures of someone younger than 18, a national survey found 20 percent of teens have texted or posted online nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves.
Gensel, who belongs to the National District Attorneys Association, said the association's trade publication featured a column on sexting that highlighted Montgomery County, Ohio, Prosecutor Mathias Heck Jr.'s implementation of a "diversion program" for sexting cases.
Young people who enter the diversion program undergo education on appropriate sexual boundaries and related topics, complete community service and relinquish their cell phone for a period of time. If the program is successfully completed, the charges are dismissed or never filed.
Gensel agrees with Heck that there needs to be some "tempering" of prosecution so some foolish, consenting behavior doesn't have long-term ramifications on young people's lives. Gensel favors a system in which young people receive an explanation about how serious of a matter sexual texting is, and that there will be serious consequences if they continue doing it.
Valparaiso police Sgt. Michael Grennes said this case shows the need for parents to educate their children about what they can and can't do with their cellular phones or on their computers. He also recommends parents to follow through by monitoring their children's phone and computer use. He also said parents might want to consider whether their child really needs to own a phone.