Teens' nude-pics trading a growing trend, concern
A bill in the last session would have required Utah school districts to create policies governing electronic devices in schools. The measure, proposed by Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, a foundation director for the Davis School District, did not make it out of the House.
Many districts - such as Jordan and Granite - have policies, but the bill would have required more specific rules, such as whether students can use cell phones for audio and video recordings, at school-sponsored events or on school buses.
Students in the Jordan School District can't bring phones into classrooms, but can keep them in lockers for use at lunch time or between classes, said Melinda Colton, a district spokeswoman.
The district's policy says using a device that "exploits personal information, disrupts the educational process, invades personal privacy or compromises the integrity of educational programs is prohibited." Abuses are isolated, Colton said.
The Granite School District has a similar policy, said spokesman Randy Ripplinger. Abuses are referred "to school discipline and/or police as needed," he said.
Utah teenagers are trading nude photos of themselves over cell phones more commonly than officials initially realized - alarming prosecutors, parents, school officials and lawmakers who want youths to understand why the trend is harmful.
The perception among teens is that sending nude photos is cute or funny, said Ronald Dunn, a deputy county attorney who prosecutes cases in Davis County's juvenile court. But sharing such photos meets the federal definition of child pornography and breaks the law, he said.
"It appears to be a mutual decision to engage in flirtatious behavior . . . but it's raised to a level that makes it a felony," Dunn said.
And some Davis County teens allegedly used nude photos taken surreptitiously to threaten one underage girl, Dunn said.
While prosecutors urged parents Monday to pay attention to how their children are using technology, one lawmaker says stricter rules on phones at school may be the answer. Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, said she plans to work with Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings on legislation.
The nude photo trading highlights the need to require school districts to develop comprehensive policies about electronic devices, she said, adding criminal penalties may be needed for enforcement.
"The question now is do we enhance some criminal penalties or address it simply by encouraging schools to adopt a policy?" she said of students abusing technology.
The cell phone issue was highlighted in January when police and school district officials announced an investigation into several Farmington Junior High teenagers who traded nude photos of genitals, other body parts and sexual activities.
Similar incidents have been found at four other Davis County junior highs and three high schools. The number of teenagers involved has jumped from 18 to 25, plus three teens from outside the county, and those are "the ones we're aware of just because they got caught," Rawlings said.
"This is far more widespread than we know even at this point in time," he said.
Davis County teens have told prosecutors the photo trading is fueled by competition among students vying for attention from the opposite sex, he said.
Parents or judges? Rawlings also has received calls from prosecutors along the Wasatch Front weighing what to do with similar cases.
Two years ago, female Monticello High School students sent nude pictures of themselves to boys, said San Juan County Prosecutor Craig Halls. Outside prosecutors reviewed the cases because Halls had a conflict, but declined to file charges.
Because the girls took the pictures themselves and sent them, prosecutors would have had a difficult time charging only the boys who shared them, Halls said. And charging everyone risked "revictimizing" girls who were already embarrassed, he said.
"It seems like people get incensed with the boy because he passed it around the locker room," Halls said. "But when you look at it, you say, who initially distributed this, if it is pornography?"
The cases are a classic example of something best handled by parents, Halls said.
"Parents ought to handle this by keeping track of their kids or taking away their cell phones," Hall said.
Striking a balance: But Rawlings noted that not all parents may discipline their children. Ignoring the teenagers' conduct and leaving punishment solely to parents would give minors a "green light" to engage in felony-level behavior, he said.
Attorneys in his office grappled with how to best handle the cases. Most deal with good students involved in extracurricular activities, Dunn said.
They decided slapping most of the juveniles with misdemeanors - coupled with education and counseling - struck the right balance.
The majority - who live in Farmington or Kaysville - are facing charges of lewdness, which is a class A or class B misdemeanor depending on whether the teen is over age 14.
All of the the teens have met with a probation officer and their parents. Most are expected to settle their cases out of court, with a mix of community service, fines, counseling or classes on understanding sexuality.
A "handful" will likely appear before a judge, including some who face felony charges for allegedly using nude photos to threaten one girl, Dunn said.
Rawlings wants to increase parents' awareness of teenagers' involvement in viewing nudity over technology. And he encouraged parents to consider whether their children need to have cameras with their cell phones - or whether the teens need phones at all.
* RUSS RIZZO contributed to this report.
- Roxanna Orellana and Melinda Rogers