EAGLE COUNTY - When a couple sexting stories broke on the Front Range, Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy looked his school resource officers straight in the eye and asked, "Does it happen here?"
"Yes," they replied, "it does."
Sexting (a combination of the words sex and texting) is the practice of electronically sending sexually explicit images or messages from one person to another.
"A lot of kids and a lot of parents are not aware of the social and legal consequences," Hoy said. "Anyone who received it or sent it along could be charged with child pornography."
It's a felony and will dog you for years, Hoy said.
"Distribution of child porn does not go away. If you apply for college or a job, it will find you," Hoy said.
School staffers tell students about the dangers of sexting and cyberbullying, and that in cyberspace everyone can see everything forever.
"Parents have got to teach their kids that while all this technology is great, but they have to understand that what they say or do, you can't take back," Hoy said. "A lot of kids don't realize that. It can ruin people's lives. One kid took was so devastated that she took her own life."
Well, for starters, sexting and cyberbullying were among 400 new entries in the 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary last year.
During a sexting case at Chaparral High School in Parker, Principal Ron Peterson said their investigation began when the victim went to the school's counselor. Douglas County Sheriff's deputies executed a search warrant and seized four student's phones.
"Do I think this happens at Chaparral high? Yes. Do I think it happens at other schools? Absolutely," Peterson told a Front Range news outlet.
Jeff. R.Temple, Ph.D., of the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, and some colleagues wanted to get a handle on sexting's prevalence. They studied 948 students, 55.9 percent female, ranging from 14-19 years old from seven high schools. They released their results earlier this month, which found that more than one in four teens in their study group have sent a nude photo of themselves electronically, half have been asked for one, and one-third have asked that one be sent to them, the study found.
Whites and African American teens were more likely to be involved with sexting, the study found.
An increasing number of teenagers are using mobile apps, such as textfree and textplus, as alternatives to traditional texting, allowing them to send messages or photos without being detected.
Teens can have dozens of apps on their cell phone, making it tough for parents to navigate the maze. Parents are encouraged to talk with their children about when they do online, and limit their cell phone use at night.
Randomly checking your kids' cell phones is one way to keep track of it, Hoy said.
"Look at their texts and photos," Hoy said.
Hoy suggested that parents place curfews on their children's phones, even going so far as to put the phones on a charger in their parents' room at night.
Also, keep their computer in a public room at home, not in their bedroom, Hoy said.
The consequences for passing sexual text message around are real and serious, Hoy said. Potential charges include sexual exploitation of a child, a felony.
"It's only a matter of time before this blows up on someone involved," Hoy said. "It could have terrible, long-lasting consequences. I believe that some parents and a ton of kids understand that."
The best way to deal with it is straight ahead, Hoy said. Sit down with your kids and talk to them.
"A lot of people say, 'they're just kids - should we deal with this as a felony, should we deal with that that harshly?' For now, it goes straight to child pornography charges," Hoy said.
Local kids generally tend to keep their wits about them, said Mike Gass, assistant superintendent of the Eagle County school district.
"We still have some, five or six, sexting cases a year and a couple dozen overall cases," Gass said.
Local schools are incorporating sexting and cyber bullying into their discipline code policies. Instead of dealing with an issue the next day, their plans now call for action in the next hour, Gass said.
Gass sometimes teaches fifth grade maturation classes, in which kids get some frank information about what to expect as they go through puberty. Part of that discussion is about technology and how it can be both your friend and enemy.
In schools, content filters screen much of that problem content. The technology department can track a post to a specific computer and know who was logged on when it went up. Kids, though, pack their own technology.
"Much of this happens outside of school, but it spills back into school because that's where the kids get back together," Gass said.
Cell phones, computers, Facebook- opportunities and pitfalls are everywhere.
"You don't have to be standing next to someone to make them mad anymore," Gass said. "The days are over when you settled this sort of thing in the parking lot after school."
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.