Jacques: Could your teen face child porn charges?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan teens beware. An indiscreet photo on your phone or computer could land you in court as a felony sex offender.

Sex has always preoccupied teens. With the broad proliferation of cellphones and social media, however, young people have a wealth of new ways to make bad decisions.

"Anyone who has a teenager — or has been one — knows that they are impulsive, they feel that they are invincible, and may not understand the long-term implications or the gravity of their actions," says Rana Elmir, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

Sexting could even place teens on the sex offender registry, Elmir says.

Consider what's going on right now in Rochester Community Schools, where 30 high school students could face felony charges for sending and spreading suggestive pictures of themselves and other teens.

And Michigan State Police officials are investigating high school students in Romeo for sexting.

It's ironic that child pornography laws designed to protect young people could be turned on these same youth.

"The prosecution of these children would go against the intent of the laws that were meant to protect children from adults," Elmir says.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Department is investigating the Rochester situation after receiving a report last month from a police liaison officer at the school. Rochester Schools spokeswoman Debra Hartman says school officials didn't alert the Sheriff's Department and know little about the specifics of the case.

Paul Walton, chief assistant prosecutor for Oakland County, says the Prosecutor's Office hasn't seen any of the details of the Rochester case yet, though one fact is certain.

"There is no such thing as a sexting charge," says Walton.

That means teens can potentially be charged with very serious felonies relating to child pornography. The creation, distribution, solicitation or possession of sexually explicit material of a minor under 18 is a felony in Michigan. If charged as adults, students could get prison time.

Teens under 17 are considered juveniles and likely face much lighter punishment, Walton says. The Rochester students involved are under 17.

But the experience could still haunt them for life.

Given the wide number of youth that participate in sexting, education is a much better approach than criminalization. A study from researchers at Drexel University earlier this year found that 54 percent of college students surveyed had sent or received sexually explicit images or text images before the age of 18.

Walton says school officials often make decisions regarding how to handle instances involving sexting and similar behavior. Schools should warn students about the dangers of sexting.

And many schools in Oakland County have worked with County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper to present middle and high school students with the consequences they could face.

Yet school districts should stop short at turning such cases over to the police.

This is a matter best handled between the students and their parents. Just as parents have to talk to their children about the dangers of drugs and sex, they now have to include subjects like sexting and social media bullying.

And there should be ramifications for such behavior — perhaps suspension from school, getting grounded or lost phone privileges. But legal action that could impact a teen's future doesn't protect anyone.

"While there's no doubt that the students used poor judgment and should deal with the consequences of their actions, criminal charges are a hard price to pay for teens exploring their sexuality," Elmir says. "We can use this as a teachable moment without throwing the book at them."

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.