Wisconsin’s Unduly Harsh Sexual Assault Laws Punish Superior Teen
September 15, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Superior, Wisconsin School Resource Officer Tom Johnson* can rest easy knowing his May investigation of a child pornography ring at Superior High School will see at least one suspect in court. Although five of the six suspects never saw charges, Austin Yabandith will be arraigned on charges of sexual exploitation of a child, second degree sexual assault of a child, and possession of child pornography on October 18.
The catch to all this is Yabandith is 17, and the charges involve consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend, cell phones, and the teenage proclivity to do stupid stuff with technology.
Austin and his girlfriend “Kim” dated for more than a year and attended the same high school in Superior, Wisconsin. When the two began having sex, their parents knew about it and instructed both on “safe sex” practices. Austin’s parents provided him with condoms, and “Kim’s” placed her on birth control.
The two were under the impression that since the parents knew and consented to the relationship, they were free to engage in sexual activity. Austin and Kim also had this notion in their heads that if they “sexted” with each other nothing bad could potentially come of it.
The problems began when “Kim” decided to send sexually explicit photos to another kid at their school using Snapchat. “Kim” saw no harm in this, since “snaps” usually disappear within ten seconds of being opened. But “Thomas” took screen captures of the “sexts” and shared them with several other boys, including Austin. “Kim’s” parents eventually found out that nude photos of their daughter were circulating around Superior High, and assistant principal Bill Punkyo assigned Officer Johnson to look into the case. This investigation would mark the official start of Austin’s woes extending beyond a broken heart.
Officer Johnson launched his inquiry into the matter with “Thomas,” who claimed Austin demanded to see the captured photos as proof “Kim” was cheating on him. The next stop was Austin, who admitted he was angry over the situation. Officer Johnson cautioned Austin against starting any fights, and asked to see Austin’s phone. He even presented Austin with a form allowing written consent for a search of the cell phone, which Austin signed.
Austin agreed—a decision he regrets to this day.
“They said that all they were going to do was delete the photos from the phone so I blindly signed a paper allowing them to access it,” Austin recalls.
One of the final stops on Officer Johnson’s inquiry was “Kim” herself. She was heartbroken and felt betrayed that “Thomas” shared her photos with so many people. Worse yet, she felt badly for Austin, because between the two of them, the exchanges were consensual. In fact, Kim disclosed her sexual relationship with Austin. That was enough for Officer Johnson, who expressed his feelings towards the pair’s intimate activities in his official report.
“I will be attempting to contact and arrest Austin Yabandith as soon as possible for his role,” Johnson wrote in the report. “Yabandith is an adult.”
Austin Yabandith is only an adult because the laws concerning sexual offenses with minors in Wisconsin allow 17-year-olds to be tried as an adult. And his alleged crimes, including engaging in consensual sexual activity with his girlfriend, will be charged and punished more severely because Wisconsin doesn’t have a “Romeo and Juliet” law, or a statute mitigating sexual offenses because the parties were closely related in age, even though one was under the age of consent. Now a kid who should be focusing on finishing high school stands ready to face charges originally designed to protect children from adult predators simply because he was a kid doing things kids do, with parental knowledge and consent no less.
There’s several takeaways from Austin Yabandith’s story, all worth discussing. First, parents need to have a discussion with their smartphone-owning children about the penalties involved with sexting. It may be a simple means of expressing childhood sexuality, but the police in your child’s school view the action as a crime and will treat it as possession and distribution of child pornography. The sooner your kid understands those intimate “snaps” on their phones can and will be used against them in court later, the less likely you are to incur costly legal bills.
Second, it’s time to revisit the entire workability of the current child pornography laws nationwide if they are being used to send kids engaged in stupid activity to jail. Yabandith’s story isn’t the first covered at Fault Lines, and it probably won’t be the last. While the original legislative intent may have been pure of heart, the laws are being used to criminalize children and send teenagers into the world as registered sex offenders. They will be denied jobs, housing, and educational opportunities for an indiscretion with a cell phone.
Finally, it’s time to start asking at the local level why we need cops in schools conducting “investigations” of this nature. It’s ostensibly a good idea to have police presence near the school in the event of a true emergency, but as Austin’s story illustrates, police presence tends to serve less of a function for protecting children and more of a mechanism criminalizing childhood antics. Our schools are places where children go for education, not an indoctrination into police compliance and the nature of the indigent defense system.
Austin Yabandith was punished for consensual sexual activity and robbed by Superior police of the ability to enjoy the final days of his high school experience. Now as he “prepares for the worst,” thanks to Officer Johnson’s tireless investigation, all Austin can think of is how much jail time he might serve for engaging in normal teenage behavior. If the law is a bludgeon, Austin Yabandith has been beaten senseless with its countless “good intentions” aimed at protecting children.