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Pa. law fits punishment with crime for sexting minors
Even if students being investigated for alleged sexting rings in nearby counties are found to be in the wrong, they will not face felony charges, thanks to legislation sponsored by Rep. Seth Grove.
A recent investigation at Valley Forge and Tredyffrin-Easttown schools in Chester County has already led to charges for three students ranging in ages from 11-15 years old.
They've been charged with distributing and offering to share sexually explicit images, with the expectation that more students will face similar charges. A similar investigation was underway Wednesday at Big Spring High School in Cumberland County.
The issue of trading explicit images by way of technology is a widespread one. A high school in Ohio has also recently landed in the national news after a student sexting scandal.
However, those who are found responsible in Ohio will be handled with more severe charges than those in Pennsylvania schools.
Sexting laws: Pennsylvania is one of only 15 states with laws directly dealing with sexting by minors.
Grove, R-Dover Township, in 2012 sponsored a statute that charges juveniles who trade graphic images with a summary offense rather than treating them as though they were full-fledged sex offenders.
Grove said the goal in creating the legislation was to curb the creation of child pornography while appropriately punishing and educating those who participated in the transmission of the content.
"According to the law as it stood, sexting fell under child pornography, so you'd get whacked with a felony offense," he said. "With that on your record, you're going to get precluded from military service, miss out on potential education grants, and in most cases have to register as a sex offender."
Ultimately, a "tiered system" was developed, Grove said.
The law downgrades the sending or viewing of "consensually" sexted images from a felony to summary offense. It also calls for those who are 12 and older to be charged with a third-degree misdemeanor for knowingly transmitting, distributing or otherwise publishing graphic images of another minor who is also 12 or older.
A minor who intends to use a sexually explicit image without the subject's consent — with the intention of harassment or causing any type of emotional distress — could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.
Those charged are also sent to programs where they are educated on both legal and other ramifications of sexting. Upon completion of the program, they'll have their records expunged.
In schools: The majority of York County school districts' policies on sexting fall under the umbrella of cyber bullying and cyber harassment.
According to York Suburban's student handbook, students found to be guilty of cyber bullying could face punishment ranging from counseling and parent conferences to expulsion and referral to law officials.
Spring Grove Area School District's high school handbook defines sexual harassment as "offensive physical action, written or spoken language and graphic communications."
The district lists similar punishments and also holds its teachers accountable in that "any administrator, teacher or advisor who has knowledge of such behavior, yet takes no action to end, it is also subject to disciplinary action."
Ongoing battle: Grove said while the 2-year-old law is still effective, the fight to end sexting is ongoing.
"I think right now (the law) covers it, but we're always updating because of technology," he said. "People are always getting around stuff by developing new methods, so it really is a constant battle with technology."
The legislation could be supplemented with additional outreach, Grove said.
"Since it hasn't been as big an issue for a bit, I think the education has fallen to wayside some," he said. "I think we're probably at a point where we need to go out there more. I don't think we need to mandate anything new right now, but I think it'd be great to put out more educational programs."
— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at firstname.lastname@example.org.