So Your Kid’s Been Caught Sexting. Now What?

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Under a strict interpretation of Colorado law, schools in the state are full of child pornographers.

They often look like a 15-year-old we met from Lakewood. He's a fairly typical high school freshman. He's lanky and loves football. But the law sees him as a potential child sex offender because he received and shared nude images of a girl via text message. In other words, he's sexted.

We're calling him Phillip. He asked that we not use his real name for this story. He doesn't want kids he knows, or their parents, to have to relive an incident that occurred last summer when his parents found photos of a naked girl Phillip knew -- on their tablet.

"I lost of lot of freedom I had earned and gained with my parents," he remembers. "There wasn't much hanging out with friends after that."

He's far from the only Colorado teen who has sexted.

Sexting scandals have rocked Colorado communities in the last year. Canon City High School found out that at least 106 students had exchanged nude images of each other last fall. Many kept that conduct hidden with a phone app that looks like a calculator but is actually a photo vault. Only the right equation unlocks the images.

The problem doesn't stop at high school. Middle schools in Lakewood and Colorado Springs have been the focus of sexting investigations in just the last month. In all, it's a perfect storm of technology and hormones. One study out of Drexel University found that among college students, half reported sending sexually explicit text messages as minors. 28 percent say they sent photographic sexts.

Prosecutors haven't charged kids in any of those high-profile sexting cases. That's because most district attorneys think that a felony charge for child pornography isn't the right tool for an increasingly common behavior. So this legislative session, DAs from across the state supported a house bill that would have created a lesser misdemeanor for sexting.

"We were trying to create something that would deter the conduct, create accountability if necessary but not result in overly harsh consequences in the event it had to be charged," said Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council.

The bill failed by a single committee vote, leaving the DAs to work with laws many see as outdated. And it has them looking to the class that got Phillip out of trouble as a model for the rest of the state.

How To Get Caught Sexting

Phillip willingly explained the details of his experience over a dinner of spaghetti tacos--his dad's specialty.

Last August, Phillip played truth or dare in a friend's basement. A couple of other boys and a girl were in on the game. All were under 18 years old. The boys dared the girl to send them nude pictures. When she got home, that's what she did.

But Phillip forgot that he'd set up his account to feed messages to his phone and an iPad at his house -- a device used by his parents

"My mom saw the text messages and informed my dad," he said. "I came home. And that's when I got confronted."

His father -- we're calling him Michael -- wasn't sure what to do aside from grounding his son, so he went to the resource officer at Phillip's high school. He expected any discipline would stay within the building. But then it became clear the justice system would handle the incident.

"[The school resource officer] turned it over to the district attorney and took the phone as evidence," he said. "It was pretty intense."

That's when Phillip and his parents faced a choice. He could be charged as a child pornographer for receiving and sharing naked images of a minor. That would mean thousands of dollars in legal costs and a ban from child-oriented locations like water parks. If convicted, he could be placed on the sex offender registry and carry a permanent record.

The other option? A five-week, $250 course called Sexting Solutions.

"The class was kind of like a savior," said Phillip. "I mean, it saved my butt."

An Educational Alternative

Colorado's first judicial district--which includes Jefferson and Gilpin Counties--developed Sexting Solutions three years ago for kids like Phillip. The program was the first of its kind in Colorado. In all, 148 kids have taken the class and avoided a legal record. As far as the district knows, no one has re-offended.

Five other districts in Colorado have followed suit with their own sexting programs according to Raynes. The classes have gained new attention from prosecutors across the state, especially since the bill to reduce the charge failed.

Clinical therapist Cheryl Kosmerl developed and teaches the curriculum in District 1. Parents and kids attend together on the first day of class. That's when Kosmerl explains the restrictions and costs of being charged with a class-3 felony for child pornography.

"At the end of that first class, the parents realize what a deal this is," she says.

Michael Carlton certainly had that reaction, but he also appreciated Kosmerl's honesty about the law.

"She’s the one that squared with us and said this is not the way this is supposed to work," he recalled. "We all understand that this is ridiculous and we want to change this, but these are the laws that we have to follow."

Parents don't join kids for the next few classes. Kosmerl also separates boys and girls to address the different motivations behind sexting.

She says that for boys, sexting boils down to, "I want a naked picture." Individual boys know their friends have gotten nudes and they want one too. Kosmerl has found that it's more complicated for girls. When she asks why they sexted, she gets responses like, "'Because I loved him,' or 'I wanted him to love me more,' or, 'I thought it would take our relationship to the next level.'"

So for girls, Kosmerl focuses on how to recognize and demand a healthy relationship. For boys, the class emphasizes empathy. She often asks boys how they'd feel if someone had pressured their sister to send naked pictures.

Phillip says that part of the class taught him "to treat women with respect, a lot more respect. Just to dig deeper and just to know them, not to just look at them and be like, 'Dang!'"

The course also includes a separate session for parents on how to manage their kid's use of technology. Michael is a freelance IT specialist, so he thought that part of the program would be a breeze.

"I did the relay chat thing back in the 90s, so I felt like I was on the up and up," he said. "And I quickly learned that there's all kind of technology that I didn't know even existed."

Kosmerl encourages parents to set curfews and rules around phone usage.

"After the parents leave the tech class, the kids seem to be really frustrated the next time around because now [their parents] understand the dynamics of tech," she said.

At the end of the course, kids make a presentation about how and why they sexted. Parents and district attorneys attend.

"That's where I really started to see the value," Michael said. "When I was just hearing these kids talk, I knew they would say things they wouldn't have said six weeks earlier."

Safer Sexting

Amy Hasinoff, an assistant professor who studies sexting at CU Denver, takes one issue with the Sexting Solutions curriculum: it teaches kids not to sext.

"We know teens are going to sext regardless," she says. For evidence, she cites a study that shows 30 percent of older U.S. teens report having sexted. "What you have to do is take a more comprehensive approach that provides information about the risk and helps teen think through strategies to make sexting safer."

That could mean teaching kids to crop their faces out of photos or to use apps like Snapchat that immediately delete images.

Kosmerl says she sees the logic, but has a hard time opening the door to sexting when she knows the risks of the behavior.

"My problem is no matter how safely they think they are sexting, they are placing this level of trust in someone not to spread the pictures or do something malicious with the pictures."

A Lasting Impact

Alexis King, a deputy district attorney who helps with the Sexting Solutions class, says she wants the course to do more than save kids from the worst consequences of the legal system.

"We hope that every kid leaves with more tools and becomes really an advocate in the community about the risks involved," she said.

Phillip seems to have taken that message to heart. He says he often hears kids at school say, "Hey, I got nudes from this chick!" Now, when that happens, he tries to start a conversation about the legal consequences.

He also keeps the lessons of Sexting Solutions front and center in his mind. He keeps memorabilia on top of his dresser--signed pictures, Broncos tickets. There's also a business card from one of the diversion officers who worked with him after he was caught.

What's runs through his head when he sees that card?

"Don’t be an idiot. Think before you act. Because every morning I go to get some socks and I see that."

Phillip says that helps as he grows up in the digital world. And after seeing all that he learned, his dad wishes Sexting Solutions was a class that kids took in school--not the justice system.