Archived Story

‘Sexting’ among teens addressed at public forum

Published 9:39pm Thursday, August 11, 2011

Think the situation involving five area high school students charged with sexting-related offenses in May was an isolated incident?
Think again, says Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter.
“If you think you don’t know (a teen) who has done this (sexting), you’re deluding yourself,” Cotter said at a community forum held Thursday at the Niles City Council Chambers. “It’s common, probably as common as underage drinking.”
The forum, organized by city council representatives Georgia Boggs and Pat Gallagher and dubbed “Saving Our Future,” indeed addressed the need for parents to monitor their children’s cell phone and online activity. But it was also about teaching parents and community members how to guide young people in the right direction in all aspects of life.
Gallagher said the purpose of the forum was to give people “a greater awareness of the laws” and to teach parents how to “inform and protect” their children.
Pastor Dan Miller of First Missionary Church in Niles said the prevalence of broken families today has made it more difficult on children and said the churches in the community need to be a “point of light” for area youth to turn to.
School teachers and administrators also play a role.
Both Richard Weigel, superintendent of Niles Community Schools, and John Jarpe, superintendent of Brandywine Community Schools, said there is little school administration can do about what children do outside of the classroom.
“But we can give guidance and advice,” Jarpe said.
Weigel said some of that guidance needs to be in the area of technology.
“They’re a tool, not a toy,” he said, regarding cell phones. “We want to teach them to use them as a communication and learning tool.”
The New Tech Entrepreneurial Academy that will launch this year at Niles High School will encourage having cell phones in the classroom as an avenue for learning, Weigel said.
Thursday’s forum took place in light of five Niles teenagers recently being accused of extracting sexual favors from a teenage girl for keeping recorded sex videos of her off the Internet.
Niles police officer Kevin Kosten presented Michigan laws on sexting and the dangers of posting explicit images online at the forum. Several community members expressed shock to find out that a teenager taking a nude or sexually explicit photo qualifies as producing child sexually abusive material, a 20-year felony under Michigan law.
Kosten referenced a 2008 study that revealed 40 percent of teenagers have sexted.
“Today those numbers are probably higher,” he said.
Kosten encouraged parents to be educated about laws involving technology, keep current on the technology, monitor their children’s cell phones and computers and keep the home computer in an open area of the house.
He also advised parents to make sure their children do not post explicit images on the Internet.
“The digital footprint will live on forever,” he said.
The forum also included a time for questions and answers with community leaders.
Boggs hopes the forum will spark a community movement to encourage and train local youth.
“Each of us has to take an active role in the future,” she said. “It’s about ‘what can I do?’ If we all sit on this, nothing will change.”

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