ARLINGTON -- Arlington students learned Tuesday about the dangers and potential penalties that can come with inappropriate and illegal activity on the Internet, from professionals who deal with it on a daily basis.
The session for high school students was led by Vermont State Police Det. Trooper Todd Wilkins, of the Special Investigations Unit in Rutland, which that handles cases of sexual assault, exploitation and abuse of children. He spoke about the dangers of posting, sending and possessing sexual images or suggestive messages online or on a phone, commonly referred to as sexting.
"Sexting might seem like it's innocent flirtation between two like-age people, (but) the nude pictures and explicit messages you send become grounds for criminal record, and in some cases prison time," Wilkins said.
Statistics Wilkins shared show 20 percent of teens admit to sending sexually explicit pictures, more than half of which are females between the age of 13 and 16, and 40 percent of teens admit to sending or receiving sexually suggestive messages. The majority of cases Wilkins said he has investigated have been through images or messages on the social network website Facebook.
"Even if you send a message that is sexually explicit, there are crimes surrounding that. It doesn't have to be a picture," Wilkins said.
Wilkins, also chairman of the Arlington School District board, told the audience there have been cases in Vermont in which teens have been charged with distributing child pornography, and teens who have received it charged with possession of child pornography. Teens have also been charged with luring a child by asking a teen, even if it is their girlfriend or boyfriend, to send sexual images.
Vermont law states that children under the age of 18 convicted of sexting are charged as juveniles and sentenced to diversion. After successfully completing the diversion program the criminal record is expunged. Those 18 and older who are convicted of possessing images of a minor are ordered to pay a $300 fine and may serve up to six months in jail.
In addition to potential fines or prison, Wilkins said the consequence of sexting can haunt an individual for years and prevent their acceptance into college, prevent them from being hired, hurt relationships and cause embarrassment when police confront the parents.
"The most important thing you need to remember, is once an image is sent, you can never, never, never recover it. Once it hits the Internet it's gone out of your control forever. Once it's taken and put on your phone, you might think you can delete it, (but) I can go out to my car right now and get a machine, and I guarantee you I can bring up every photograph you ever took," Wilkins said. "Think about that before you even push the button to take the picture. Think about that. Once you take the picture, it's always there."
Anybody who wants to become a law enforcement officer, Wilkins said, should expect those images to be found. Upon application, Wilkins said police do Internet searches and ask for social media passwords and cell phones to see what they can find. Some corporations and businesses have the same requirements.
Even businesses that do not ask for passwords often see what is publicly available on the Internet. Karen Archer, who coordinates a technology safety program for Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, told students she saw a statistic on college admissions staff that check the Internet when reviewing applications, finding one third of those applicants are negatively impacted by what is found.
"The decisions you make right now, and I'm sure you've heard this, you've heard it from your parents, you've heard this from your teachers, but it's true; the decision you make like that today will forever have a consequence," Wilkins said.
Last fall, nearly two dozen students from 14 to 17 years old at Milton High School admitted to participating in a "teen sexting ring," in which they sent nude photos of themselves.
When asked if sexting can be a problem in a small town like Arlington, Wilkins said that research has not found trends that exclude any population, although it is most common among middle and high school girls with low self-esteem.
"Everything I read, it's girls that have a little less self-confidence, the girls who maybe aren't the popular ones. Every school has that. I don't care how big or how small," Wilkins said. "It's happening everywhere ... and yes there are cases in Arlington because I have looked into them."
Students in Grades 4 through 8 also learned about Internet safety, although it focused more on cyber-bullying and creating an "online image" that they can be proud of.
A special Internet safety session for parents was also held at the high school in the evening.
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at email@example.com or @DawsonRaspuzzi