A 14-year-old boy from Barrington, Rhode Island, has been charged with distributing child pornography after he shared inappropriate pictures of a 13-year-old female classmate with friends. The girl has also been charged—albeit with the lesser crime of disseminating indecent material.
The two teens swapped nude photos of themselves using Snapchat, according to eastbayRI.com. The boy then saved the images, showed his friends, and even created a fake Snapchat account in the girl's name. One of the girl's classmates saw the account and alerted authorities at Barrington High School, including School Resource Officer Josh Melo. Earlier this month, the police charged the boy with felony distribution of child pornography and cyberstalking, and the girl with the minor offense of "sexting."
What the boy did was very bad, and "cyberstalking" might technically fit the bill here, given the fake account. But it still seems harsh to threaten a 14-year-old with jail time and registry on the sex offender list. What he did was wrong, but it's hard to argue he's a predator, or a danger to other kids.
In an op-ed for The Providence Journal, attorney John Grasso wrote that the police could have charged the boy with sexting instead of child pornography, as they did with the girl.
If convicted, the boy will be a felon and a registered sex offender — everlasting consequences that I suspect this boy was unaware of when he allegedly decided to use cyberspace to pass around sexually explicit photographs of a girl his same age to other kids his age. …
Sexting exists as an option to law enforcement when the police decide to exercise discretion. Child pornography is a felony that puts jail on the table. Sexting is a status offense. Kids who commit status offenses don't go to jail. Child pornography requires sex offender registration. Sexting specifically does not. Child pornography is the very deep end of the cyberspace quicksand.
The girl is getting off easier, with the sexting charge. But charging her at all seems like a grave mistake. The only real wrong here was the fake account, and the pictures being shared without permission. The boy did that—the girl was just the victim.
Melo, the school resource officer, did not respond to a request for comment, but told eastbayRI.com this:
Officer Melo said there are Barrington Middle School students who have social media accounts and share information with more than 1,000 "friends." He said it is very likely that the local students only know a few hundred of the contacts and could be communicating with other individuals who are dangerous.
"We know sex offenders are using these apps to talk to young kids," said Officer Melo. "People are trying to befriend the kids online."
This notion—that the internet is a particularly dangerous place where sex offenders are constantly targeting and grooming children—is a classic example of a moral panic. The sex offender registry is full of people who didn't actually commit sex-related crimes (like the boy in this story), and sex offenders have lower recidivism rates than just about any other group of criminals. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "The single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14." That's because there are many kids getting in trouble for having sex with kids, and fewer adults.
Our zeal to punish kids for inappropriate but perfectly normal teen behavior doesn't make them safer from sex offenders—it turns them in to sex offenders. That's something everyone should keep in mind, especially given the public's current enthusiasm for putting more cops in schools as part of a noble but misguided effort to prevent mass shootings.