Three Colorado middle and high schools were rocked by a string of recent underage sexting scandals, prompting police investigations. If charged, the teens involved in the case — some as young as eighth grade — could face charges of child pornography, which would require them to register as sex offenders if they were convicted.
The stiff penalties for sexting has sparked a debate in Colorado and other state assemblies over whether misbehaving teens should face the same punishment as child pornographers. But efforts by the Colorado state legislature to lighten the penalties have stalled.
In the sexting case at Bear Creek, a K-8 school in Lakewood, the five students involved were in eighth grade. School leaders turned to the local police after discovering that nude photos were being circulated, The Denver Post reported. Meanwhile, Colorado Springs Police were contacted last Wednesday about allegations that a partially nude photo was shared among a circle of students from two other Colorado schools, Pine Creek High School and Challenger Middle School, according to KRDO news.
At this point, no charges have been filed in any of the cases, but the Pine Creek and Challenger school cases have been handed over to the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office. The juveniles involved could be hit with a felony sex offender charge.
Penalties for underage sexting vary from state to state. In Colorado, minors caught trading nude photos are legally susceptible to harsh child pornography charges. It's one reason why the state legislature has been working toward a solution to reduce possible sentencing for teens involved in sexting.
The latest bill to reach the state legislature reduced charges for minors to a misdemeanor, echoing the laws of 11 other states, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. But a vote on the Colorado measure stalled in a house committee last week, though another committee has the chance to reopen the matter if it acts by Friday. Lawmakers against the measure were primarily concerned that, while it would be good to reduce potential child pornography charges for sexters, the bill was still too harsh on kids sending nude images.
State Rep. Yeulin Willet, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill, says that the misdemeanor charge did not go too far. He argued that the juvenile petty offense that the bill introduced accounts legally for "virtually no crime at all" and "basically just takes that juvenile into some counseling or education, end of story."
He added that making teen sexting a misdemeanor charge allows the police to seize the images and prevent them from being spread online. "To say that this is a victimless situation is just not a fact," he said. "These images get stolen, hacked, now they end up in the hands of thousands or more via digital media, and now you have a suicidal young girl. What started out as a consensual situation, the problem is the permanent damage. It lasts forever."
But Jennifer Eyl, director of family stability programs at the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center, says that even the misdemeanor charge was too harsh. It criminalized the behavior of sexting itself, even consensual sexual behavior between teens, she said, rather than targeting the issue of non-consensual spreading of nude images.
"It's really kind of this blanket prevention of sexting, which, we work with kids, we just know that that's not going to happen. Sexting is part of 21st century communication between teenagers," she said. Eyl also expressed concerns that the most vulnerable children — those in the foster system or without strong parental involvement — were particularly susceptible to blanket charges because foster parents might be more inclined to involve law enforcement should they discover nude photos.
"While we hope parents and schools are educating kids about the risks of [sexting], about the risks of where pictures could end up and the fact that they might exist on the internet forever, we don't want it to be criminalized at that level," she said.