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A Lawyer, Some Teens and a Fight Over 'Sexting'

Wall Street Journal

The group of anxious parents crowded around District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. as he sat behind a table in a courtroom here and presented them with an ultimatum.

Photos of their semi-nude or scantily clad teenage daughters were stacked before him. Mr. Skumanick said the images had been discovered on cellphones confiscated at the local high school. They could either enlist their kids in an education program or have the teens face felony charges of child pornography. "We could have just arrested them but we didn't," said Mr. Skumanick in an interview.

The practice of teens taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to friends via cellphones, called "sexting," has alarmed parents, school officials and prosecutors nationwide, who fear the photos could end up on the Internet or in the hands of sexual predators. In a handful of cases, authorities have resorted to what one parent here called "the nuclear weapon of sex charges" -- child pornography.

But some legal experts say that here in Wyoming County, Pa., Mr. Skumanick has expanded the definition of sexting to such an extent he could be setting a dangerous precedent. He has threatened to charge kids who appeared in photos, but who didn't send them, as well as at least one girl who was photographed wearing a bathing suit. One of the accused is 11 years old.

"The whole tawdry episode seems to call for a little parental guidance and a pop-gun approach, not a Howitzer approach with a felony prosecution," said Louis Natali, a law professor at Temple University.

The sexting case in Tunkhannock is being closely tracked by juvenile-justice authorities. Many prosecutors say pornography laws should be used to protect children from adults, not from other children. In some cases, teens could end up listed on sex registries if convicted of child pornography. Others say that if charges are made, they should be limited to kids who actually distribute the photos.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of parents sued Mr. Skumanick in federal court in Scranton, Pa., alleging he violated the freedom-of-expression rights of three teenage girls. The ACLU also says that Mr. Skumanick is interfering with their parents' rights to raise them as they see fit.

Others say Mr. Skumanick is giving the teens an opportunity to avoid charges, which he could have filed immediately. Mr. Skumanick says he plans to appeal and says he didn't have to offer the education courses as a way out. "We thought we were being progressive."

Some see Mr. Skumanick's alternative of offering classes as appealing. "You don't want to tag them with a scarlet letter for the rest of their life," says Shannon Edmonds, a staff attorney at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, about charging teens with sex crimes.

Sexting came into the spotlight in this rural town, population 1,900, in October. A female student in the Tunkhannock High School cafeteria saw a boy scrolling through his cellphone and spotted a nude photo of herself, according to Mr. Skumanick. When the girl became upset, the school took the phone and called the police who, in turn, handed it to the district attorney's office.

Mr. Skumanick, 47, has been district attorney for the past 20 years here in his boyhood home. He says he was troubled by the photo, and what worried him most was an incident in Ohio where the mother of a teenager blamed sexting for her daughter's suicide last year. The girl, Jessica Logan, had sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend and later hanged herself after being harassed by schoolmates when the boy allegedly sent the images to his friends.

As Mr. Skumanick contemplated what to do, the school turned up several other phones with nude or semi-nude photos of students. One showed an image of a 17-year-old girl in a towel wrapped just below her breasts. The girl, who asked not to be identified, said she sent the photo to her boyfriend about a year ago to make him jealous when she heard he was interested in another girl. "It was just stupid," she said in an interview.

Another confiscated phone had photos of a 17-year-old girl that she described in an interview as "semi-nude pictures, underwear and stuff like that." The girl, who took the photos herself, was debating whether to send them to her boyfriend when a teacher took the phone.

Mr. Skumanick thought he had enough evidence to charge them as juveniles on pornography violations -- not just for sending the photos, but for appearing in them, too.

With the help of school officials, Mr. Skumanick convened a series of assemblies, from fifth-graders to seniors. For the youngest students, he asked them to conjure how they would feel if their grandparents saw a photo of them that is "not nice." He warned the older students that sexting could damage their college or job prospects and could result in felony charges.

At one of the assemblies, a student interrupted and accused Mr. Skumanick of trying to ruin the teens' lives. "This isn't a debate," Mr. Skumanick told the senior boy, who was escorted out of the auditorium.

Mr. Skumanick also worked with area youth officials to offer the teens a class in lieu of charges. Patrick Rushton, education manager at the Wyoming County Victims Resource Center, culled course outlines for both boys and girls from educational Web sites on sexual harassment and violence. His curriculum included material on "what it means to be a girl in today's society" and a poem, "Phenomenal Women," by Maya Angelou.

On Feb. 5, with the course outline mostly in order, Mr. Skumanick sent a letter to parents of the students involved, saying their children had been "identified in a police investigation involving the possession and/or dissemination of child pornography." The letter summoned the parents to a Feb. 12 meeting at the Wyoming County Courthouse.

MaryJo Miller was dumbstruck when she opened her letter, which targeted her daughter, Marissa. Mr. Skumanick later told her he had a photo of Marissa that showed her from the waist up wearing a bra.

Marissa and her mother say the photo was snapped at a slumber party more than two years ago when Marissa was 12. Neither Marissa nor her mother knows how it got circulated but they don't see the photo as explicit. "It was like an old grandma bra. Nothing skimpy," says Marissa.

Marissa and her parents joined a group of about 50 others at the courthouse. Before showing the photos, Mr. Skumanick explained his offer to the crowd, answering one father's question affirmatively, that -- yes -- a girl in a bathing suit could be subjected to criminal charges because she was posed "provocatively."

Mr. Skumanick told them he could have simply charged the kids. Instead, he gave them two weeks to decide: take the class or face charges.

He then told the parents and teens to line up if they wanted to view the photos, which were printed out onto index cards. As the 17-year-old who took semi-nude self-portraits waited in line, she realized that Mr. Skumanick and other investigators had viewed the pictures. When the adults began to crowd around Mr. Skumanick, the 17-year-old worried they could see her photo and recalls she said, "I think the worst punishment is knowing that all you old guys saw me naked. I just think you guys are all just perverts."

Mr. Skumanick dismisses the criticism, saying that no one could see photos of teens who weren't their own children.

In the end, parents enrolled 14 teens in the course. But the parents of three other girls, including Marissa Miller, recruited the ACLU's help to sue Mr. Skumanick. At a hearing March 26, a federal judge indicated he thought the girls may be successful in their suit and temporarily blocked Mr. Skumanick from filing charges, pending a June hearing.