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DA's office raises awareness about 'sexting'

By Conor Berry, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Updated:   03/04/2009 04:13:41 PM EST

Berkshire County District Attorney David F. Capeless discusses the relative ease with which young people can access the communication technology that
Berkshire County District Attorney David F. Capeless discusses the relative ease with which young people can access the communication technology that enables inappropriate text messaging.
Wednesday, March 04

Watch David Capeless' press conference. Video courtesy of PCTV.

PITTSFIELD — A high-tech trend known as "sexting," in which nude or sexually explicit photos are transmitted by cell phone or spread over the Internet, is prompting county officials to take proactive steps to combat the illicit activity before it takes root.

The district attorney's office, in conjunction with a local cable TV station, plans to produce anti-sexting programs that will begin airing in county schools this spring.

Sexting, a disturbing trend popular with a growing number of adolescents and teenagers, is not yet a problem in the 6,300-student Pittsfield school district, according to Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein III, who hopes to keep it that way.

"We're not seeing it as a prevalent issue," he said, noting, however, that school officials are concerned about the growing phenomenon.

Meanwhile, at least one county high school has already had to confront the trend head-on.

"We're still dealing with an incident that occurred at one of the area high schools," said Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, who declined to identify which one.

"I'm concerned about stigmatizing one school," said Capeless, if, indeed, sexting is also prevalent at other county schools.


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More than a dozen local high school students were implicated in the sexting incident, which involved the circulation of explicit photos of a local girl, according to Capeless, who declined to provide further details. No one has been criminally charged in connection with the case.

"The primary thing we've sought to do in that case ... is to stop what was going on," said Capeless, adding that he would prefer to deal with such matters outside the criminal justice system. If need be, though, offenders could be charged with any of a number of felony crimes, Capeless said.

Despite the insistence of some teenagers that sexting is fun, flirtatious, and an easy way to test the romantic waters, so to speak, the issue of consent is moot, Capeless said.

"There's no consenting minors," he added.

Nationwide, 22 percent of teenage girls and 18 percent of teenage boys admit to electronically sending or posting nude or semi-nude images of themselves, according to a survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com.

Many of the middle- and high school-age students surveyed in the recent poll say sexting is nothing more than a high-tech way to flirt. But law enforcement officials say this sort of flirtatious behavior could fall within the realm of criminal behavior, triggering possible child pornography charges that, upon conviction, would require a person to register with the state's Sex Offender Registration Board.

In Massachusetts, in fact, anyone who sends or receives explicit sexual images could run afoul of the state's tough child porn laws, all of which are felony offenses punishable by jail, fines or both.

In an effort to take a proactive approach to the growing problem, Capeless held a press conference at his office Tuesday morning to educate people about the dangers of the sexting phenomenon, which has received heavy media attention in recent weeks.

What's most disturbing, said Capeless, is the blasé attitude of those who engage in this sort of activity. "It concerns me a great deal," he said.

Sexting generally happens like this: An image — particularly a photo of a nude or partially nude minor — is typically transmitted from one cell phone to another, then further disseminated through e-mail and online social networking Web sites. If the image winds up on MySpace or Facebook, for example, it potentially can be viewed by thousands of people.

This sort of activity is happening all over the nation, including the Berkshires, according to Capeless, who hopes to end the trend with education. His office is producing anti-sexting programs with PCTV, a local public access station, with a goal of showing the videos at schools throughout the county this spring.

"What we're setting out to do here is to educate parents and kids about the very real and far-reaching consequences of this sort of behavior," Capeless said. "The audience we're really trying to reach is the parents."

The joint survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com included responses from 1,280 teenagers and young adults between the ages of 13 and 26. Respondents were polled about their use of and attitude toward cell phones, computers and other digital communication devices.

Among the more disturbing results, according to Capeless, is the derelict attitude of respondents, 49 percent of whom admitted to sending sexually explicit messages and 56 percent of whom acknowledged receiving such messages.

Further, 33 percent of teenage boys and 25 percent of teenage girls say they have received nude or semi-nude images, while 33 percent of respondents between the ages of 20 and 26 say they have sent or posted images of themselves.

According to Massachusetts criminal law, sexting may violate child pornography laws ranging from "posing a child in a state of nudity or sexual conduct," "dissemination of pictures of a child in a state of nudity or sexual conduct," "possession of child pornography" or "dissemination of harmful matter to a minor."

More information is available on by logging on to the district attorney's Web site at www.mass.gov/berkshireda, then clicking on the "Crime Prevention" category.

To reach Conor Berry: cberry@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6249.

 
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