West

Should teens who ‘sext’ be punished — or educated?

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A pending bill would provide police and prosecutors with an alternative way to deal with minors who “sext.”

Amid rising concerns about the pervasiveness of teen sexting, a panel of speakers at a recent regional forum at Franklin High School agreed that the best way to address the problem is through education, not punishment.

“We want to protect our teens and our children from the harms of sexting, but I believe we also need to do all that we can to prevent and limit our young adults and our children’s contact in entering the….criminal justice system,” said state Senator Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat.

Organized by the MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women, the forum Monday was intended to inform parents about the prevalence of sexting in the region, how they can address the issue with their own children, and possible changes in the law that could offer solutions.

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A focus of discussion was a pending bill filed by state Representative Jeffrey N. Roy that would provide local police and prosecutors with an alternative way to deal with minors who “sext,” or electronically send a naked or sexually provocative photo of themselves to someone else.

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Roy, a Franklin Democrat, said he filed the bill in response to concerns he heard from Franklin police about the need to provide law enforcement with more tools to address teen sexting.

“Police officers are presented with a choice: either do nothing at all or charge the child with a felony possession of child pornography — that’s all the law provides to deal with this particular conduct,” he said. “And most police officers will tell you they do not want to stick a 15, 16, 17-year-old kid with a felony record” that might also require them to register as a sex offender.

Roy’s bill would enable police to charge children who sext with a misdemeanor offense. Additionally, the child could be offered the opportunity prior to arraignment to enter an educational program on sexting as an alternative to prosecution. Completion of the program would result in no record of the offense being placed in the child’s criminal record.

“I think there would be universal agreement that most minors engaging in this behavior are not in the business of producing child pornography…..But we also know that this is dangerous behavior…..So we ought to be….allowing kids to learn lessons from” their actions, said Roy, whose bill would also provide school districts with educational programs on sexting.

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Spilka, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she included proposed changes similar to those in Roy’s bill as part of a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill now before the Senate. Governor Charles Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito have also filed similar legislation.

Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center and a professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University, hailed the legislation “not because I want children who sext to be frightened by an encounter with the law but because I want them to have an opportunity to really become better educated about this.”

Englander, whose center studies teen sexting, said it is too early to assess long term impacts, such as whether it might prevent some youths from getting a job later in life. But she said there is evidence that in the short term, some teens suffer emotional trauma due to sexting, including feeling embarrassed or regretful.

Some of the center’s research findings to date could be helpful to young people, Englander said, including how they can sometimes fail to appreciate the lack of privacy involved in using digital devices. She said it was also important to talk about sexting to teens in the context of healthy relationships.

Englander encouraged parents to talk to their children about sexting, but not to overstate the risks.

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“It’s important to be accurate with kids because if you make this all sound like if they sext their life is over….you are going to immediately lose your audience,” she said. “They know certainly well that’s not going to happen. So it’s important to be genuine.”

Franklin police Sergeant Christopher Spillane, the town’s school safety officer, said that sexting was initially a predominantly high school issue but has now “dropped down into the middle school aged kids.” He said Roy’s bill would be an important boost to addressing the issue.

“We’re definitely looking for something like this to help us do our jobs,” he said.

The MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women has made Roy’s bill one of its legislative priorities for the year, according to Denise Schultz, a commission member who moderated Monday’s forum.

“For many of us, the horse is out of the gate on cellphones,” Schultz, who is also a Franklin School Committee member, said in an interview. “We’re trying to navigate parenting children with social media and cellphones and they’re doing this all under our radar. So we need to know how best to help them, not to get into these scenarios going forward.”

“It’s a big cultural shift,” Schultz said. “I did not go through my teens with a cellphone that could take pictures, so I think we need to know what it’s like for these teens, the pressure that they’re under.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.