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'Sexting' raising concerns in Henry

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

A growing trend among teenagers who use cell phones and the Internet, is prompting law-enforcement officials in Henry County to respond with stern warnings.

Representatives from the Henry County Sheriff's Office and Police Department are cautioning the public regarding a practice known as "sexting," or sending sexually-explicit pictures by cell phone or via the Internet.

Henry Sheriff Keith McBrayer said sexting in the county is seen most often among middle- and high-school students. Many of them, according to him, are unaware of the risks posed by the activity.

"If someone gets involved in something like that where they're sending nude pictures of themselves ... over the phone, then, they can end up in a situation where they get arrested and charged as a sex offender," said McBrayer. "We want to caution high school students, especially that, if they get tangled up in this, it can ruin them. They can ... be put on a sex-offender registry that affects them for a job, and about where they can live. I don't think a lot of kids pick up on that, until it's too late."

McBrayer said another consequence of sexting comes when the sender of an explicit photo does not consider who has the potential to view it. "If you take a picture of anybody that is inappropriate ... and you e-mail it or send it to somebody, it's out there forever," continued the sheriff. "Don't do something like this, and ruin your life."

Sheriff's Lt. Scott Perry, who oversees the sex offender registry at his agency, said sexting and other offenses involving technology account for some of the individuals whose names have been added to the offender list in recent years.

"There are people on the registry who are charged with enticing a minor for indecent purposes, and also computer-related crimes ... sending pornographic material ... over the Internet," said Perry. "The [Henry County Police Department] usually investigates the cases, and once it goes to trial and they're convicted, they're put on the registry. If they don't go to prison, but are put on probation, we pick it up and start tracking them."

According to Perry, the county's registry currently contains the names of 209 convicted offenders, who must register with authorities annually. Those individuals, he said, are prohibited from living or working near a school, day-care center, church or public park.

Perry said being on the registry for sexually-related crimes, including sexting, carries a stigma which stays with the offender "for life."

"There's a stipulation in the law that once you complete 10 years on the registry, you can go to the superior court of the county that you live in, and petition to come off," said Perry. "A judge is the only one that can take you off the registry. But, the law says you're on there for life."

Henry Police Detective Kelli Owen works in the Crimes Against Children Unit of the agency's Criminal Investigations Division. She said sexting is "very prevalent" within the local community, and is not limited to young people.

"No one community is immune from this," said Owen. "The vast majority of our cases stem from juveniles taking nude pictures of themselves and sending them to other juveniles. However, we do often arrest adults for taking nude pictures of children they have molested."

The detective said the frequency of sexting has gotten "more serious" within the last two years, with recent improvements in technology. "Almost every cell phone today has the capability of taking pictures," added Owen. "And almost every teenager - and younger - has a cell phone."

Owen said the police department is taking additional measures to curb the occurrences of sexting in Henry. According to her, the agency recently applied for a federal grant, in an effort to obtain the necessary funds to reduce the trend.

Still, the detective believes parents should be "much more vigilant" in observing their kids' behaviors when using certain electronic devices.

"Children should not be allowed to have computers in their private bedrooms, where parents can't monitor what is going on," said Owen. "I always tell parents that they may be able to trust their children, but they definitely can't afford to trust the person on the other end of the Internet connection. After all, they have no idea who they're talking to."

Gregg Hunter, the vice president of public affairs for the Georgia Family Council (GFC), a non-profit research and education organization based in Norcross, said sexting is a topic which many parents are unwilling to address with their children.

However, he said it is vital that they do so. "Priority No. 1 is for parents to talk to their kids," said Hunter. "We encourage parents and kids to craft a technology behavior agreement that clearly outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior online, or via their cell phones."

The GFC offers an Internet-safety seminar, titled "Play It Safe." The program, said Hunter, is designed to inform the public regarding trends in technology, and the dangers of sexting and related activities.

According to him, the seminar is given periodically at schools and churches in Georgia.

For more information, call (770) 242-0001, or e-mail info@georgiafamily.org.