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Columbia County teens, law enforcement, school admin discuss sexting, what the law says, and how it impacts students' lives

PMG PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - A group of high school teens uses their cell phones during lunch to text one another and use social media. Sexting, or using a cell phone to text sexual or explicit photos to other people, is fairly common, students say, but many want to know more about the legal ramifications.

If you ask high-schoolers what they think about "sexting" — a term that refers to sexually related text messaging, including the sending of images — a surprising number say it's commonplace.

While some teens shy away or have no opinion on the subject, others comfortably, casually discuss sexting and how it impacts their daily lives.

National data from the Pew Research Center show that 4 percent of teens have sent a sexually suggestive photo of themselves to someone, according to a 2009 study. Fifteen percent — 1 in 6 students — reported receiving an image in the same study.

A 2015 Pew study also reveals that 5 percent of teens have been pressured to engage in unwanted sexual behavior through the internet or texting.

Law enforcement officials in Scappoose and St. Helens say they receive between three and seven sexting reports per school year. And that's just the cases that rise to the level of law enforcement's attention.

"We've had those cases come from every single high school in Columbia County, and they've come more than once," Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier said.

With the rising popularity of sexting among high school teens, law enforcement has accelerated its response to reports of sexting and school officials have ramped up education initiatives to help prevent abusive outcomes. Still, many teens, and adults, don't know where to draw the lawful line in sexting cases, are unsure how to curb the activity, and have little understanding of sexting's legal consequences.

Not 'a big deal'?

When asked about sexting, a handful of teens in Scappoose and St. Helens high schools characterized it as a common interaction among peers, often those in relationships — but not always.

Ramon Pena, a junior at St. Helens High, said sexting is "super common. It's become normalized. Nobody is phased by it."

"It depends on what you define (as sexting), but I have heard about it a lot," Makayla, a junior at St. Helens High who did not want to provide her last name, said. "While I don't participate in it and haven't received anything, I think people who do, it's not perceived as a big deal."

Some teens say that while they don't take part in sexting, they are not immune to being asked for "booty pics" or "nudes."

"It's not necessarily something I'm involved in, but I know people who do it," said Emma Kessi, a Scappoose junior. "I have been asked for booty pics, though."

Others said they have friends who have received unsolicited and unwanted messages or images on their phones or social media accounts, including photos of male genitals, sometimes from complete strangers.

"I know random girls get ... pics sometimes," said Abby Castillo, a junior at St. Helens, adding that not all of the messages originate from other students.

But even flirtatious interactions between teens who trust each other can quickly go awry.

In 2017, the Scappoose Police Department investigated reports someone had created a shared online folder that contained inappropriate images of Scappoose High girls.

Police Chief Norm Miller said his department investigated the reports and school administrators interviewed students suspected of being knowledgeable about the incident, but no one was able to provide physical evidence of the folder's existence.

As a result of its investigation, Scappoose police requested a search warrant from the Columbia County District Attorney's office, but the request was denied. While Auxier said the case happened before his tenure, his understanding is that legal barriers prevented the search warrant from being signed. There wasn't sufficient probable cause to believe the online folder still existed at the time, meaning it may have existed at one point but there was reason to believe it had been destroyed, he explained.

Miller said the case ultimately stalled absent physical evidence of the folder.

"There just wasn't enough to prosecute on," Miller said. "So what do you do with that? At that point our hands are tied as a police department."

Sean Luedke, a St. Helens Police Department school resource officer, said he is now pursuing two cases involving St. Helens Middle School students who shared personal photos of themselves this school year.

In those cases, Luedke described the photos as "intimate," where the students were partially clothed, but not nude.

Legal consequences

Students interviewed about sexting often had no reservations about discussing how common it has become among their peers. Less common, however, was an understanding of sexting's legal consequences.

What happens when a photo is sent to someone and others see it, or it is shared on social media sites Snapchat or Instagram?

District attorney Auxier said sexting reports are handled on a case-by-case basis, noting it's difficult to paint a broad picture of the consequences of teen sexting.

"There's so many factors for the state to consider when we consider prosecuting a youth," Auxier said. "It's hard to make a broad statement to educate the student body that this one thing will occur."

Oregon state law outlines specific definitions for harassment, intimate photos, distributing child pornography, and using a child in display of sexual conduct — all language that could potentially apply to sexting. Several factors need to be considered before initiating prosecution, however, Auxier explained.

In some instances, victims might not want to pursue charges due to a possible stigma that could result. In others, digital images have been or destroyed and can't be retrieved. And despite what might appear on the surface as a revealing image, there is an official metric the state applies when defining "intimate" images.

Auxier explained that his prosecutorial philosophy is not to pursue charges against someone for willingly participating in an explicit photo, but to instead hold accountable the person who may spread that image without permission.

"I can say, generally, my philosophy on this: In the eyes of the law and this district attorney, a young woman's choice to take an intimate photo and share it with someone she trusts, is not something I will judge. I'm not in the business of blaming victims," Auxier said.

In addition to the enforcement aspect, schools are educating students about the risks of living in a digital world.

Katy Wagner, the principal at St. Helens High, said educators work with the students to help them make smart choices about digital interactions, including sharing images.

"Once it out there, you'll never get it back," Wagner said of images disseminated online. "If it becomes digitized, it's basically a permanent record."

Jeremy Howell, a student resource officer in St. Helens who interacts with the high schoolers, said students he talks to are often aware that they shouldn't be sharing such images, but they still do.

"I think it's a general knowledge among most kids — they know they shouldn't be doing it," Howell said.

Scappoose Principal Jim Jones said he's had a similar experience. He noted that students are frequently knowledgeable about digital communications, but said that knowledge is often not a deterrent to electronic behavior.

He added that schools across the country are grappling with the relatively recent advent of sexting, and said he is open to considerations from other schools on how to deal with it.

"We're certainly open to suggestions. Probably every school in the nation is dealing with this," Jones said. "If there's a school out there with a better way, I'd like to know so we can do it too."


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