By Pam Horne, Managing Editor
Teens engaged in sexting, cyber bullying face potential felony charges
Juvenile Court Judge Sharon Guffee said she was pleased with the overwhelming crowd of parents that turned out for a seminar recently at Ravenwood High School to learn about the negative realities of sexting, cyber bullying and other social technology for teens and families.
“We knew that Ravenwood had an active parent association and they sure showed it tonight,” Guffee said last Thursday of the more than 200 parents in attendance. “There were some very attentive parents here asking some very good questions.”
District Attorney General Kim Helper, Sheriff Jeff Long, FBI Special Agent Scott Augenbaum and psychologist James Wellborn, M.D. spent an hour educating parents on the realities of 21st century technology in the hands of teens.
After a pointed question from the audience about how students could better alert authority figures to an unsafe situation without being ostracized from peers, Long announced his department’s future launch of a new program.
“I’ll just go ahead and tell you all that we have bought a software package that we will be placing in all the schools in Williamson County that will allow students to give an anonymous tip (to authorities),” Long said of a program that shields student identity, which may encourage more students who fear retaliation from peers to come forward with information.
From a prosecutorial standpoint, however, the district attorney’s office can only pursue a felony charge in a sexting situation, even though the defendant is a minor.
The sharing of nude photographs from one teen to another can be considered sexual exploitation of a minor even if it is minor to minor.
Juveniles can be charged with a felony in these cases.
“(Students) don’t understand the profound legal implications,” said Wellborn after the meeting. “They think they’re just trading pictures. (The potential for criminal charges) puts a whole new developmental twist on this regular developmental process that teens go through.”
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Mason, who handles these cases for the 21st Judicial District, said last night that parents and teens may not realize two important facts about Tennessee state law.
First, the state does not have a “sexting statute” on the books. The only law applicable to sexting-related activities carries a felony charge, spanning upward in severity from Class D to Class B.
If found guilty the defendant would be placed on the state’s Registry of Sexual Offenders.
Charges of cyber bullying must involve a threat to the recipient of the communication in order for the case to advance to prosecution stage.
“We try very hard to look at each case specifically,” Mason said. “Tennessee, under its current harassment statute, says there has to be a threat (before the case rises to the level of prosecution.)
Mason said this is why Helper’s office, along with professionals in juvenile-related services, are spending so much time speaking directly to parents and teens about the legal implications.
“We have had assemblies in several schools,” she said, noting visits she has personally made to Brentwood Middle School, Fairview High School and freshman orientation at Centennial High School.
Last week, Williamson County schools alerted parents to the use of Twitter accounts by students who were engaging in cyber bullying, as well as boasting about drug use and sex at schools.
The potential for criminal charges exists for teens if it is determined that they are either sharing photos that could be categorized as pornography or are threatening another individual using social media.
Psychologist Dr. James Wellborn had some good news and bad for parents.
He said the latest national data being collected indicates that overall the well being of teens is better than ever, but the explosive increase of apps that allow smart phone users to exchange data under the radar of parents is introducing a huge vulnerability.
Wellborn referred to the combination of the internet, technology, sexting, teenagers being stupid, sex and anonymity as “the perfect storm.”
Wellborn, who specializes in counseling teens and their parents, was straightforward last night about how parents should deal with the situation.
He stressed that talking frankly with kids is important, especially talking about personal issues of character and trust that will have more far-reaching implications on their future as adults.
See related column:
Posted on: 2/20/2014