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February 09. 2012 11:43PM

Bill would send kids who engage in 'sexting' to juvenile court

CONCORD — School administrators and police lined up at a hearing on Thursday to support a bill that would send kids who engage in “sexting” to juvenile court.

At the same time, criminal defense and civil liberties advocates railed against HB 1562, which they said would only make matters worse.

The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Laura Gandia, R-Litchfield, told the panel that the legislation was developed with considerable consultation with police and school officials, and that it was altered to make “sexting” not a crime, but a matter of delinquency to be dealt with in the juvenile courts.

“This is more about treatment and rehabilitative services,” she said.

“Sexting” is the use of cell phones or other electronic devices to send sexually explicit messages or images of oneself. Once sent, the images are often forwarded to other students or end up online.

The bill states that “no minor (under age 17) shall knowingly and voluntarily use a computer or telecommunications device to transmit an indecent visual depiction of himself or herself ... or possess such an image, unless the recipient reported the incident to school authorities or police, and did not solicit the image or send it to anyone.” The bill also covers text messages.

Elaine Cutler, the superintendent of schools in Litchfield, said the problem of “sexting” is widespread and getting worse. “Remember sending love notes in class? This is the modern equivalent of that,” she said, adding, “kids don't realize how devastating the consequences can be.”

Cutler cited one recent incident in which a student had to be taken to the hospital with suicidal impulses after an explicit image of her was widely distributed among students.

Cutler said having consequences beyond what can be meted out by school officials could help, and that juvenile court would be the appropriate place to deal with the incidents.

“I consider juvenile court an educational process,” she said, adding that it would also make parents more aware of the problem.

Hudson Police Chief Jason Lavoie said a law is needed to deal specifically with “sexting” because the only laws on the books that are applicable today concern child pornography.

“We don't want to use the child pornography statute in these situations. It really doesn't fit,” he said.

However, representatives of New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and criminal defense lawyers slammed the bill, saying education, not prosecution, was the way to deal with the problem.

“To say we're really concerned about the humiliation and long-lasting effects suffered by teenage girls, and then say the solution is for them to get a criminal record for it is astonishing,” said Catherine Cooper, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She noted that while such records are concealed, they could be discovered at some point.

“Not only will this not help avoid the humiliation, it will compound and add to it,” she said.

The committee took no action on the bill, which will be taken up in executive session later this month.


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