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'Sexting' craze hits Fargo-Moorhead area

MOORHEAD - Several area teens had recent runs-ins with law enforcement over texting provocative images.

A Moorhead student is under criminal investigation for sending a pornographic image to a juvenile - the most recent of several similar investigations this school year, according to Moorhead police.

In Fargo, police referred a teen to Juvenile Court last fall for possessing sexually explicit photographs of a juvenile.

"Sexting," which often involves teens sending nude images of themselves to boyfriends or girlfriends, became a household term on the heels of several high-profile national cases.

In a recent survey of 1,300 teens by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one in five said they've "sexted."

Despite the buzz, teens are still not fully aware of the possible consequences, experts say. For one thing, when they feature juveniles, the photos can be deemed child pornography. And when the recipients are under 18, the senders are technically distributing pornography to juveniles. But beyond getting teens in legal trouble, images can come back to haunt them.

"Kids think it's cute and smart and, 'Oh, I'm going to be in love with this guy forever,' " said Carolyn Nelson, a Fargo state senator who co-sponsored a bill this year that will make it a misdemeanor to pass on sexually expressive images without the subject's consent. But then, Nelson adds, "The boyfriend breaks up with the girlfriend and puts all her pictures on Facebook."

Moorhead police did not release additional information about the ongoing investigation, which began after a parent complaint last week. Lt. Tori Jacobson said it's one of several incidents "that went bang-bang-bang earlier in the school year."

Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash said students caught with provocative cell phone images at school face disciplinary action - namely, a parent or guardian conference - under the school's electronic network use policy.

Nationally, "sexting" made recent headlines and sparked debate on what, if any, punishment teens who engage in it deserve. Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania prosecutor threatened to charge two teenage girls with distributing child pornography after they texted semi-nude photos of themselves to male classmates.

More recently, the Vermont Legislature tackled a bill to grant legal protection to teens who willingly exchange explicit images.

Moorhead police officials haven't recommended charges in "sexting" cases, Jacobson said; the priority is to clamp down on the continued distribution of the images: "In most cases, we're trying to help damage-control bad decisions made by young people."

Fargo Police Lt. Pat Claus said it's unlikely teens who exchange provocative images will get in major trouble - unless the receiver, knowing the subject of a photo is younger than 18, passes it on without consent.

"If you plaster it all over the Internet, the potential is for that person to face adult charges of disseminating child pornography," Claus said.

Concerns about malicious dissemination of images - both by students and adults - spurred Grand Forks (N.D.) High School teacher and state Rep. Lois Delmore to spearhead new legislation that makes such dissemination a misdemeanor. But, Delmore said, the intent of the bill wasn't to criminalize consensual exchanges of images.

Jacobson said teens often naively assume their images will only be seen by the original recipient.

They might be in for nasty surprises down the road.

"Once that photo gets out there, you can't get it out of the Internet," Claus said. "It's like shutting the barn door after the cows have already gotten out."