UPDATE 5/16/13 @ 6:10 p.m.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – A new law passed this month in West Virginia will soon make it illegal for kids and teenagers to “sext,” or send sexually explicit text messages to each other. Sexting is already illegal between an adult and a minor.
Minors who are caught sexting will have to go through an “educational diversion” program to teach them about the consequences of sexting. After completing the program, charges would be dropped from their record.
The program is “basically providing them with some type of an education to tell them, ‘Hey, this is wrong, this is bad for your future, there's consequences,’” West Virginia State Police Corporal Robert Boggs said.
Boggs works with Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center and deals with mobile devices and smart phones that are confiscated for sexting. It’s important for people to remember, Boggs said, that sexting technically involves child pornography.
“Really what you’re doing when you hand one of these [smartphones] to a kid, you're giving them a wide open gate to the entire world, and the world to them,” Boggs said.
Local school officials say this is the first time there have been clear consequences for teens caught sexting each other.
“It doesn't have anything to do with the school but school administration are finding out about it because somebody will come forward and complain that their picture is being sent out,” Todd Alexander of Cabell County Schools said. “We have to confiscate the cell phones and then we notify the police or state police or go through our school resource officers.”
The problem is becoming more prevalent among high school and middle school students.
“In most cases, it’s been sent out with the intent of being sent to one person,” Alexander said. “That person ends up distributing it to somebody else and it almost goes viral.”
Boggs said it’s difficult to deal with these cases. An increase in sexting cases means police and investigators have to devote more time to these cases and less time to child pornography cases that involve younger children being victimized by adults. He also said the changing technology complicates things, as apps like Snapchat and Kik allow photos to self-destruct and get rid of any evidence.
“Monitor their children,” Boggs said of how parents can handle this. “If they provide them with smartphones, look at them, go through them. Take them from them occasionally, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you think something is suspect, investigate it.”
Boggs and Alexander both warned of the lasting effects of sexting.
“Once that picture is online or has been sent out, you’re liable to see that 20 years from now, or you’re liable to see that 10 years from now when you’re applying for a job and there’s an employer doing a search on you,” Alexander said.
They hope the new laws will prevent some of these cases by deterring students from sexting.
West Virginia is the first of the three states in our region to ban sexting among minors. The law will go into effect in July.
But that could all change.
Detective Jeremy Burns is working with the prosecutor’s office and others to pass a new law that would make it illegal for kids and teens to make, have or share nude or partially nude pictures.
"It's a problem that increases every year. I think, approximately around 400 cell phones last year were seized -- not just from 'sexting' investigations but overall. But the majority of that 400 came from sexting in our local high schools and middle schools," said Detective Jeremy Burns, a digital forensic examiner with the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department.
It will be proposed at the next legislative session and could become law early next year.
"We want the students to know what they're doing is wrong -- and they may not know what they're doing is wrong until they're told," Burns said. "So hopefully by having a law in the book that'll take care of it."
Lawmakers are rallying around this proposed law and some call it a form of bullying – and they also want to help save kids and teens from themselves.
"Kids are now growing up with all these digital devices," said West Virginia Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha. "Maybe they just don't understand that when those images are out there, they're out there forever."
State Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said, "You're talking about kids and you're talking about the repercussions of that can be damaging to kids. I mean, emotionally, socially -- so, I think we need to consider all those types of things when we look at a law like this."
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Currently, it's legal for minors to take, send, receive and swap pictures, under West Virginia law.
Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies are standing behind this proposed sexting law to close the gap. The law would make it illegal for teens to make, have or pass around nude or partially nude pictures.
The law would make sexting an act of juvenile delinquency, punishable by spending up to a year in a detention center.
Detective Jeremy Burns with the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department took the lead on the legislation since he deals with cyber crimes daily. He says just last year about 400 phones were seized from teens in Kanawha County. He says the majority contained child porn.
"It won't put a stop to it, but I'd at least like to see in Kanawha County that with a proper education to the schools and let your children know that what they're doing is wrong," Detective Jeremy Burns said. "That we can at least put a major dent in it."
Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants says he sees this as an issue directly tied to bullying when the pictures get in the hands of others.
"It doesn't matter whether the person wants you to take the picture or not," Plants said. "You better not have these kinds of pictures on your phone and you certainly better not be distributing them."
If passed, the penalties will ultimately be left up to a judge. Prosecutors are looking for lawmakers to help sponsor the bill. They hope something will be passed in this upcoming legislative session.
Currently, sexting is illegal between teens and adults but not teens passing pictures between each other.