'Sexting' punishment doesn't fit the crime

Three Chinook Middle School students have had felony charges filed against them for sharing via their cellular phones a photograph of a nude 14-year old student.

The charge is a class C felony, carrying a maximum penalty of 30 days in juvenile detention. But anyone convicted of the offense is required to register as a sex offender.

Thurston County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Rick Peters is right when he says the case is “a situation where the technology is ahead of the legislation.” Peters has called upon the Legislature to come up with a law that better fits the wrongdoing committed by juveniles who maliciously spread nude photos of their peers.

Yes, so-called “sexting” is serious business. And, yes, too many young people are guilty of sharing inappropriate photos of themselves and others. But do these three teens really deserve to have felony convictions on their records and be required to register as sex offenders? That has the potential to ruin their lives.

The charges and consequences are an overreach, in our opinion.

What happened in this case provides an excellent opportunity for parents to discuss “sexting” with their children – a chance to explain that actions have consequences, and that sometimes those consequences can have life-altering ramifications.

This is a typical case. The mother of the 14-year-old said her daughter exhibited poor judgment in taking a nude photograph of herself and sending it to her then-boyfriend.

We agree. It was a terrible lapse in judgment. But the youngster – and let’s remember that a 14-year-old is still a youngster – did not deserve what happened to her after the photo was sent.

The boyfriend forwarded the photo to a friend and from there it was passed from one student to the next. It’s impossible to say just how many students – and adults – might have seen the nude photo. The students accused of sending the photograph are identified as a 14-year-old boy and two 13-year-old girls. Each is charged with a single count of dealing in depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

Even the 14-year-old and her mother do not believe the other teens should face felony charges and sex offender registration. “That isn’t going to solve anything,” the mother said. “But we both agree that there need to be consequences – stiff consequences.”

And that’s where the Legislature needs to catch up with technology. They should create a new law that serves as a deterrent to “sexting,” but does not carry the stigma of a felony or require sex offender registry.

It’s a pervasive problem in society today. Courtney Schrieve, a spokeswoman for North Thurston Public Schools district said, “The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported last month that a survey of 1,280 teens and young adults found that 20 percent of the teens said they had sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves. That number was slightly higher for teenage girls – 22 percent – vs. boys – 18 percent.”

The school district has done its part to educate students and parents about sexting. Middle school teachers at Chinook and Komachin discussed the issue with students, and Chinook Principal Kirsten Rae sent a letter home to parents stating that sexting is a serious crime. The school district also placed automated notification calls to all of its middle school parents, explaining what sexting is and that it is a crime.

Schrieve is right when she says the incident, which could happen at any school, anywhere, must serve as a learning opportunity for parents and their children.

Now is the time to have that tough conversation, to explain what happened in this case and describe the grave consequences the teens now face.

It’s an opportunity to talk about the 14-year-old girl and how her life has changed because she sent one inappropriate photograph of herself to a boyfriend.

This is the time to discuss appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and about consequences for the decisions they make. This can, and should be, a learning opportunity.

Prosecutors should rethink whether they really want to saddle three young teenagers with felony convictions that will follow them the rest of their lives.