By Katie Murdoch Enterprise editor
MILL CREEK — Mill Creek Police Officer Steve Smith has seen this situation too many times — a teenage girl crying in front of him because a risqué picture she sent to her boyfriend is circulating on her classmates’ cell phones.
Sending images or messages via cell phone of someone naked, acting or dressed inappropriately or engaged in sexual acts is known as “sexting.”
While students are aware of what sexting is, many don’t realize the repercussions are often severe.
For starters, provocative pictures of someone under 18 is legally classified as child pornography. Carrying or sending the pictures can lead to being charged with a felony and could mean having to register as a sex offender.
“Even if the pictures are sitting there, you’re still hosed,” Smith said.
To make things a little more confusing, it’s legal for teens under 18 to have sex. But it’s illegal for minors to take sexually explicit pictures and send them, which is considered to be distributing and possessing child pornography.
“The law has to draw a line somewhere,” Smith said.
Smith is the school resource officer at Jackson High School and Heatherwood Middle School, both in Mill Creek. One issue Smith has been trying to squash at Jackson is sexting.
Compared to shoplifting and possessing marijuana, getting caught with child pornography is a more serious offense, Smith said.
“They don’t realize how harsh the consequences are, both legally and socially,” he said.
Smith has talked to upperclassmen whose pictures, which they sent in the eighth grade, are making their third and fourth rounds through peers’ phones.
“I’ve had girls crying, ‘How do I undo it?’” he said. “It’s something you can’t undo.”
Horror stories of sexting, primarily where a girl is betrayed by her boyfriend, have circulated around the country. More than 40 percent of girls said pressure from guys was the reason they sent sexually suggestive messages and images, according to data from the Everett Police Department. Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of guys said pressure from friends persuaded them to send pictures of themselves.
In February, three Lacey teens narrowly dodged having to register as sex offenders after texting a naked photo of a middle school classmate.
“It’s not like you can cut up the negatives and it’s gone,” Smith told a crowd of Jackson parents and students earlier this month. “Once you hit ‘send’ you never get it back.”
Smith gives presentations to classrooms and parent groups about sexting and explains what it is, along with the social and legal consequences.
“Nothing is truly anonymous,” he said. “(We) can still trace a picture back to you without your name or even if your face is cropped.”
Jackson student Dane Legaré, 15, said Smith’s presentation would resonate with his peers, especially if it’s conversational and students can ask questions.
Legaré said he’s aware sexting happens but it’s a no-brainer to not engage.
“A lot of this is common sense,” he said.
Zachary Sealy, 16, said he hears about sexting going on at school and it’s common, but no one really drops names.
Sealy said he’s heard many of the warnings before, but it was a new spin to hear about sexting from Smith’s non-threatening point of view.
Smith advises teens who receive unwanted messages to show a trusted adult so they can trace it back to the original sender.
He assures students who show unwanted pictures that they won’t get into trouble. “You can’t control what people send you,” he said.
But if a teen receives an unwanted picture and keeps it in their phone — regardless if they intend to send it on — they can still get into trouble for possessing child porn, he added.
Police Chief Bob Crannell pointed out teens don’t think to the future and the high probability of those images resurfacing and haunting them. It doesn’t help that, compared to their children, parents are behind on the technology curve, Crannell said.
Crannell said college admissions, potential employers and military recruiters comb through the Internet and social sites like Facebook and MySpace to learn more about applicants. What they find can influence their decisions to admit or hire someone, he said.
“There’s no way to erase it; this stuff follows you,” he said. “There’s some stuff you can write off with time and distance, but this is truly a brand or a mark for life.”