Detective: Sexting and youth don’t mix

Published 12:00pm Friday, December 14, 2012

Special report

By Sarah Stultz and Kelli Lageson

A growing problem among area pre-teens and teenagers has prompted school and police officials to take action.

Two days this week at Southwest Middle School, Albert Lea Police Department detective Frank Kohl has delivered a presentation about the consequences and dangers of sexting, which refers to taking and sending sexually explicit photos or videos over the phone.

In many cases, a teenager is sending a photo to a boyfriend or girlfriend, or someone they would like to be with, not realizing that the photo is classified as child pornography and that it could be distributed elsewhere, he said.

“It’s serious, serious stuff, although they think it may not be,” said Kohl, who handles a majority of the department’s sex crime investigations.

In the last year, he said there have been at least four reported cases of sexting of youth that he has investigated, which is up from the previous year. The cases have involved either middle school or high school-aged kids.

Because sexting has come about with an increase in technology, it is not something that local authorities have had to deal with much in the past.

Authorities have focused mainly on educating youth so that they know sexting is a criminal behavior and that there are lasting consequences tied to it.

Kohl said he recently met with Freeborn County Attorney Craig Nelson to talk about the issue.

“What are we going to do about this?” Kohl asked. “These kids know what the dangers are. Ultimately, the buck has got to stop someplace.”


Lasting consequences

Kohl said he and Nelson talked about whether students caught sexting should be criminally charged for it — there’s the potential they could be charged with manufacturing, dissemination or possession of child pornography, all of which are felonies.

Nelson said to this point he has been cautious about charging a juvenile with any offense involving sexting, but after additional education in the schools, he is confident to say he will prosecute cases if there is evidence to support them.

“We have had enough time and there’s been enough education out there and notice to the public that this is illegal behavior to send, to receive and to retransmit these types of photographs,” Nelson said. “Because of that, in the right situation, with the right photographs, I will certainly charge.”

He said someone found guilty of such — whether it be possession, dissemination or manufacturing — would be required to register as a sex offender.

Kohl said he tried to be as honest as possible about the potential consequences and nature of sexting, and he thinks the students got the message.

He gave a similar presentation at Alden-Conger School in October, along with a presentation at Albert Lea High School about sexting and cyber bullying.

In the past few years, he has also given presentations about what to post or not post on social media websites.


Children are naive

Albert Lea High School Principal Jim Wagner said sexting falls under the school’s bullying and harassment policy, and usually the hardest part in disciplining children is finding out who started the incident. Wagner said from what he’s seen and from talking to other principals in the state that usually the incident starts when a boy and a girl are dating.

“All of the sudden they have a phone and can send pictures back and forth,” Wagner said.

He said children of that age don’t understand that the relationship is unlikely to last. Often the photos get sent out to other students after the couple breaks up.

“They get mad and things get done in anger,” Wagner said.

Since he started as principal at the start of the 2011-12 school year he hasn’t seen a specific incident or heard that his assistant principals have either. But it’s a concern for the school, because it could happen. Superintendent Mike Funk said the schools are trying to be proactive in teaching students about how to use and not use electronics.

“We’re trying to communicate appropriate use of devices in the digital age,” Funk said.


Why the rise in cases?

Kohl said he thinks children today are more desensitized about sex than people his age were as youth.

“Sex was something that was secretive, kept it hush-hush,” he said. “Now it’s out in the open, it’s talked about everywhere. It’s on TV.”

The detective said he is seeing cases of 12- and 13-year-old children having sexual intercourse, sometimes even with multiple partners. And some young teenagers are also dating people much older than them, another change he calls concerning.

He said he has focused his efforts on middle school students who are just entering puberty because he thinks they will be more impressionable than high-schoolers.

“If I could spend two or three days at a school and I don’t have to charge kids with felony crimes of child pornography, I’m all for that,” Kohl said.