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Maine Bill Zeroes in on Growing Problem of 'Sexting'
03/15/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Lawmakers are looking at legislation to address what's being described as an explosion of sexting incidents in Maine and across the country. These are cases in which teenagers swap sexually explicit photos of eachother on their cell phones. Sometimes the images are also photo-shopped as a way of bullying a student. As A.J. Higgins reports, current law doesn't distinguish among such activities.

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Curiosity about the opposite sex is nothing new. But state Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, of Sanford, told members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that what has changed is the way teens get and share their information.

"We had the Sears catalog, we had National Geographic that we used to look at, and everybody who's my age will share those kinds of experiences," Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio said. "When my son was growing up it was the Victoria Secret catalog -- well that all changed with the Internet."

These days, Mastraccio says, young teens, and even pre-teens, are armed with smart phones that display text messages as well as pictures. When those messages carry sexual overtones or are accompanied by nude photos or sexually graphic material, the practice is called sexting.

Whether the message is intended as a prank or not, both the senders and recipients can potentially find themselves in trouble with police. Current Maine law prohibits sexting images of a minor. And those who wind up being prosecuted for sexting can also find themselves on the sex offender registry for life. It doesn't matter what their age.

Mastraccio wants members of the legislative panel to develop a law that prohibits sexting by minors, but also gives the courts some flexibility in sentencing.

"These kids - it's just part of their life," Mastraccio said. "They have a phone. They have no impulse control and they think, 'Oh, that would be funny to take a picture of that.' And then they send it to somebody else, and it's not funny for a guy unless he can share it, so he shares it with his buddies. So I'm just saying that it's a problem, and it's not just about them having problems. It's about them being teenagers - young people who have a tool that they can use in an inappropriate way."

No one sees the need for a change in the law more than Michael Gordon, a Sanford police officer assigned to Sanford High School. He says the problems associated with sexting are growing in the schools, and current state law was never intended to address the kind of pranks kids are pulling on each other.

"There's a current area school district that I worked with an SRO on where 17 middle schoolers were caught in this one case of sexting - you're talking 11 to 14 years old, and you're charging them with felonies," Gordon said. "These kids have never committed a crime before. Is this fitting the spirit of the law? I think when you look at creating a law, that's something that you should look at."

Elizabeth Ward Saxl of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Violence says her organization is interested in seeing what the committee can do to help school administrators and parents deal with incidents of consensual sexting. But she says instances in which sexting is part of bullying, harassment or gender-biased behavior are already addressed under current law.

"While we think a careful examination of current law is warranted, we also believe that many statutes do address some of these concerns: bullying, harassment, hazing. Federal Title 9 statutes may be adequate to address some of the damaging behavior as directly with the perpetrators," Ward-Saxl said.

"We need to bring in the right people to drill down on this issue as to what will work - what's the proper intervention," said Rep. Mark Dion, who serves as the House chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. The Portland Democrat wants to bring stakeholders in the sexting discussion together to try to find new ways to address the problem.

"It seems like we all share an idea that there's a harm, and it's not just the immediate harm of seeing your picture," Dion said. "It's the bullying and the harassment that can come from those videos or digital photos. And we want to have the right tool available to the schools because we heard schools saying, 'We need help here, as well as the school's resource officers.'"

The committee has scheduled a work session on the bill for March 22.



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