YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Many teens think there is no harm sending inappropriate text messages to each other, but the legal consequences are serious.
In some cases, it can be considered child pornography. So is there anything being done to get this message across to teens and their parents?
27 First News reporter Julie Bercik looked into the issue and learned about a new program in Mahoning County that focuses on sexting.
Almost everyone has a cell phone with them at all times, snapping pictures of anything and everything and not so innocent moments.
“You take an inappropriate picture of yourself and then you send it out,” Jackson Milton High School student Taylor Bachochin said. “That person can always send it to somebody else and it can always just go viral.”
“I feel like a lot of people do it, but that is their choice,” Jackson Milton sophomore Kaitlyn Totani said.
“There is not a whole lot of pressure,” Jackson Milton senior Devin Seka said.
Sexting is a more high-tech version of kids playing doctor. Teens sending nude images has serious consequences.
“Could result in felony charges, juvenile sex offender registration, the court,” Mahoning County Juvenile Justice Center counselor James DeLucia said.
Reported cases come across his desk and the desk of Sharon Fischer, the JJC probation coordinator.They said a lot of the cases are first-time offenses.
“They don’t belong in a sex offender program. The program was not designed for kids like that. The laws were not designed for kids doing this,” DeLucia said.
“We had to acknowledge them somehow, some way, because the police were filing,” Fischer said.
The two started brainstorming, used their expertise and resources, and developed the Cyber and Relational Diversion Program, or CARD, for short. It focuses on education and the cold hard reality of sending inappropriate pictures.
“It is never gone because it can always be retrieved by BCI, by the police departments. They have special tools they can go in,” Fischer said.
The CARD Program is for low-risk offenders. Applicants have to go through a screening process to be a part of the five-week program.
DeLucia and Fischer launched the program last fall. Since then, they have taught it in almost every school in Mahoning County. Jackson Milton High School students said it was eye opening.
“I don’t think it goes through the person’s mind when they are doing it, but if you kind of take a step and look back at what might happen, then I think you will realize it is a possibility,” sophomore Ashley Totani said.
“There is always a few students that will come up to us, often times, kids will come up to us in tears,” DeLucia said.
Educating parents is big part of the CARD Program.
“Ignorance is not an excuse for just ‘I didn’t know my kid could do this’ or ‘I didn’t know you could possibly do this on your cell phone’,” DeLucia said.
DeLucia recommends parents randomly check their kids smart devices and while it usually does not go this far, adults can face consequences too.
“The telecommunications harassment statute can in fact apply to the owner of the device,” Mahoning County Assistant Prosecutor Anissa Modarelli said.
Twenty teens have successfully gone through the CARD program. DeLucia said it is too soon to tell how well it works.
Mahoning County Juvenile Judge Theresa Dellick said sexting is different from the days when teens wrote love letters to each other. Sex is also widely portrayed in movies and television shows.
She wants teens to be aware of the danger and stay out of trouble in her courtroom.
“Before you send something, think about it. Do you want to see this on the nightly news? The answer is most likely no. So don’t send it,” Dellick said.
She said the laws were not designed to prevent sexting; they were designed to stop adults from trying to take advantage of kids.
Juveniles do not need to be court ordered into the CARD Program. The Juvenile Justice Center has had parent referrals and calls from schools and police.
As long as a teen goes through the screening process and meets the program requirements, he or she can be a part of the program.