The consequences of youth sending and receiving sexually explicit texts was the topic of an Oct. 11 information at Bexley High School featuring Franklin County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Zach Imwalle.
Imwalle discussed the legal ramifications and offered recommendations on how parents can safeguard their children.
The high school partnered with Love Without Hurt, a local nonprofit organization, to present the session, school Principal Harley Williams said.
"We try to talk to our students about what healthy relationships look like, both with friendships and dating," he said. "At this age, we know they begin the experience of dating without a lot of knowledge with how to handle things, and they can behave in immature ways that can cause problems. We're trying to prevent that through education."
Love Without Hurt presented an information session on the topic for students last school year, but the Oct. 11 event was designed specifically for parents and other concerned adults, said Lisa Carroll, the organization's cofounder. Raising awareness of the dangers of "sexting" is an extension of the organization's work in preventing teen dating violence, she said.
"Bexley has realized that social and emotional health and well-being is so indicative of kids not using drugs, not wanting to hurt themselves and, most importantly, stopping the cycle of violence," she said. "We have found that this sexting issue really has been overtaking most of the schools that we've been working in."
Ohio law defines child pornography as any content that depicts a minor in a state of nudity, even if the minor was the producer of the content, Imwalle said. He cited statistics from the American Academy of Pediatrics indicating that 27 percent of juveniles nationwide reported having sent a naked picture of themselves to someone. In Franklin County, 59 juveniles have been charged under the state's child pornography statute since 2014, he said.
Sexting can be prosecuted as a felony, but teens who send or receive nude photos most likely would receive probation or a lesser punishment, Imwalle said.
However, judges and prosecutors have sentencing discretion, including mandating prison time and making those who are convicted register as sex offenders, he said.
"It can be a pretty embarrassing situation," he said, "especially with the nature of the crimes we're dealing with."
To protect their children, Imwalle recommended parents establish limits on how and when their children can use computers and mobile devices. He also advised researching parental control apps such as Ask to Buy, which enables parents to review each purchase their children make through app stores.
"We want everyone to have these tools to make some good decisions," he said.
Educating and communicating with children is most important, he said.
"Create a dialogue with your children about normal and abnormal behavior," he said.
Suspected child pornography crimes can be reported to the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force at 614-525-3448 or by visiting ohioicac.org.