Mimesis Law
21 October 2019

Colorado’s “Teen Sexting Ring” Shows Need For Reform

Nov. 16, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — A quiet Colorado town stands shocked this week after the discovery of a child pornography ring involving the exchange of allegedly three to four hundred photos.  This scandal is so widespread and pervasive authorities believe it could take “a month” to sort out the victims and offenders.  The alleged perpetrators, unsurprisingly, are high school children willing to do stupid things with cell phones.

At least 100 students at a high school in Cañon City traded naked pictures of themselves, the authorities said Friday, part of a large sexting ring.

The revelation has left parents outraged, administrators searching for missed clues, and the police and the district attorney’s office debating whether to file child pornography charges — including felony charges — against some of the participants.

The revelation teens “sext” is nothing new, just as the prosecution of those who may have done so consensually is old hat for those with eyes focused on reality.  The administrators and parents of children at Canon City High School, however seem dumbfounded their kids would participate in this heinous crime.

The “sexting scandal,” as parents are calling it, shocked many, and it has also elicited anger from parents who say they knew about this type of photo-sharing for years and sought unsuccessfully to get school officials to intervene. Heidi Wolfgang, 41, a mother who no longer lives in the district, said in a telephone interview that she had spoken to a Cañon City Middle School counselor in 2012 after she found photographs of a nude adolescent on a cellphone owned by her daughter, then 12.

Another mother, Lisa Graham, 46, said her daughter, now a junior at the high school, had been “propositioned by multiple guys” during her freshman year. “She received unsolicited photos from guys, which she immediately deleted,” Ms. Graham said by telephone. “I’m frustrated if people knew and didn’t shut it down three years ago.”

District Attorney Tom LeDoux promised to use “common sense” while sorting out which children to place on the sex offender registry before they get a diploma.  This appeal is nothing but a panacea for the parents who are worried their respective children might face felony charges.  It doesn’t help that Colorado laws covering “sexting” carry some of the most severe penalties in the country.

Under Colorado law, producing or distributing sexually explicit images of a minor is a Class 3 felony, punishable by four to 12 years in prison. Merely possessing such pictures is a Class 6 felony, punishable by 12 to 18 months in prison. Possession becomes a Class 4 felony, punishable by two to six years in prison, if it involves video or more than 20 still images.

In fact, since Colorado’s exemptions for possessing “sexually exploitative material” are limited to peace officers, court personnel, physicians, psychologists, therapists, and social workers, even school officials who confiscate students’ phones theoretically could be charged with felonies.

Three phones have currently been seized as of this writing, which means school administrators will need to either be extremely cautious during their investigation or rely on District Attorney Tom LeDoux’s promise to show restraint when charging offenders. Canon City Police Captain Jim Cox echoed LeDoux’s sensibility sentiments in the fight to find the children who exploited others at Canon City High.

“We’re not out to hang every kid. We don’t want the victims to think they did something wrong, but we do want to know what happened,” [Canon City Police Capt. Jim Cox]  said.

Fremont County District Attorney Tom LeDoux said some students could face charges that cause them to register as sex offenders, because students under the age of 18 cannot consent to taking or exchanging nude photographs under Colorado law.

“But I take the implication of that very seriously and would urge that only if I felt it was absolutely necessary. It is possible there will be no criminal charges filed at all,” LeDoux said. (emphasis added)

It’s certainly possible LeDoux and Cox will make good on exercising their discretion. Unfortunately, past experiences with similar issues in other states would give one cause to say “prove it” before simply trusting authorities.

The above bolded statement (my emphasis) shows just how ridiculous Colorado’s laws treat sexting.  If you are seventeen and make a conscientious decision to send a nude photo to someone, you did not consent.  Turn one year older and it’s perfectly legal and consensual.  The legal conundrum this poses is one so bizarre LeDoux acknowledges it’s an issue.

“Consenting adults can do this to their hearts’ content,” said Thom LeDoux, the district attorney, but “if the subject is under the age of 18, that’s a problem.”

Reason’s Jacob Sullum outlines the further inconsistencies in the laws regarding consent that make this disconnect truly head-scratching.

But if a teenager is not old enough to sext consensually, how can he be old enough to sexually exploit a minor who agrees to be photographed, especially if that minor is himself? Adding further to the confusion, the age of consent for sex in Colorado is 17 in general, 15 if the other party is no more than 10 years older, and even younger if the difference in age is four years or less.

In other words, it is unambiguously legal for teenagers in Colorado to have consensual sex with each other or even with partners in their early 20s. But sending each other pictures of their private parts is a felony.

Some educators even have suggestions on how to resolve the issue without slapping felony offenses on teens.

Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver…contends that schools need to find new ways to talk to students about the issue. Rather than just demanding that students abstain from sending risqué images, she said, educators should aim for open conversations that involve guidance in “safer sexting” with trusted partners.

Teachers and school officials “think they’re protecting people from harm,” Professor Hasinoff said. “But we know it doesn’t work.”

And there is the fundamental shift in thinking we need desperately to address this problem. The “sexting epidemic” isn’t about protecting children from harm, it’s about our own reactions to the way kids do dumb things with technology.  Progress means rewriting the confusing and draconian laws originally designed to protect kids and discussing the practice of sexting with teens before they start doing it instead of proceeding straight to felony charges.

Jacob Sullum addresses the matter more succinctly.

The real sexting scandal has less to do with the way teenagers use their cellphones than with the way adults respond to it.

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  • Jason Peterson
    16 November 2015 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    It was only a matter of time before we started arresting kids for molesting themselves.