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PITTSBURGH -- During this season of high school proms and graduations, schools will go as far as bringing the wreckages of fatal highway accidents on campus to stress the dangers of drug and alcohol use to students.
However, many of those same schools are ill-equipped when it comes to dealing with the inherent dangers of a ubiquitous and seemingly harmless device -- the camera cell phone.
Nationwide, schools and law enforcement agencies are struggling to find ways to deal with teenagers who transmit images of illegal acts, particularly pornographic pictures of themselves or their underage peers, from their cell phones.
On May 20, 17-year-old Alex Phillips, of LaCrosse, Wis., was charged with possessing child pornography, sexual exploitation of a child and defamation after he posted naked pictures of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend from his cell phone on to MySpace.
At Westerville South High School in Westerville, Ohio, at least 30 students received the image of a teenager fondling himself when he sent a cell phone video to female classmates in April.
In Pennsylvania, state police were dispatched to Allentown's Parkland High School in January to remove video and photos of two high school girls from the cell phones of at least 40 students.
Closer to home, Thomas Hajzus, principal of Peters Township High School, said three female students sent pornographic pictures last school year.
State Police Lehigh Trooper Paul Iannace, who assisted at Parkland School District and heads the computer crime investigations division, said pornographic teen images on cell phones is a problem that, as it grows, drains limited resources from other cyber crime investigations.
"There [are] only a handful of [officers] in the state that analyze computer media for evaluation," he explained. "Schools always ask us if we can [remove pictures] because we're involved day in and day out, but it takes up a lot of our time. We're trying to arrest people for crimes against children."
Trooper Iannace said police in Lehigh County do not normally arrest teens for transmitting images peer-to-peer, but the problem has become so extensive, that may change.
"When you're under 18, you can't have a nude picture. If the image or video depicts someone partially nude who is under 18, it is considered child porn in Pennsylvania. Should we arrest them if they're taking nude pictures and they're sending them to age-appropriate friends? We may have to, because they're using up all of our services."
Against the law
Law enforcement agents in Allegheny County, however, have never exempted teenagers from arrest for child pornography. In Pittsburgh, a 15-year-old girl was arrested and charged with sexual abuse of children, possession of child pornography and dissemination of child pornography when she posted nude and sexually explicit photos of herself on the Internet in 2004.
Pittsburgh Police Detective Mike Overholt said it is essential that teenagers understand they face charges associated with sex crimes if they're caught with images of underage peers, even if they are underage themselves. Possessing, photographing, selling or transferring sexually explicit images of anyone under 18 is a second-degree felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment in Pennsylvania.
"The law in Pennsylvania is you cannot post sexually explicit pictures of a child. You cannot sell, distribute, display or share them. It's against the law. It doesn't say anything about the age of the person who does it," he said, adding that those convicted could be forced to register as sex offenders.
Detective Overholt agreed with Trooper Iannace that cell phone images are a growing problem, citing a colleague who called it "an epidemic." He said the computer-crimes unit has investigated eight cases this year in which porn images had to be erased from teenagers' phones, and he wouldn't be surprised to see more.
"Like one psychologist said, everyone wants to be a star," he said. "We've lost any inhibition that goes with not putting yourself out there."
Jon Nicassio, a 16-year-old freshman at Penn-Trafford High School, agreed that students send naked photos to each other in pursuit of fame. He said he has received explicit images of four female classmates this year, all of whom are under 18.
He said the students face little ridicule from classmates and that one student said "she was famous now" after circulating her own photos. His mother, Jennie Nicassio, who blogged about the incident on momssoapbox.com, said she believes "technology has killed society's morals."
Mary Jo Podgurski, director of Washington Hospital Teen Outreach in Washington, Pa., said she believes most young people are pressured by older peers to send sexual images, but she knows it's possible some do it to make a name for themselves.
"I hope they're not doing this to be famous, but that's the culture we're living in. The 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol spoke of is a lot longer now. People go on Jerry Springer and reveal all kinds of personal things. This is not far off from that."
But Dr. Hajzus said blaming the phenomenon on modern culture removes responsibility from families and schools.
"I believe they're excuses for breakdowns in families and schools being able to communicate with kids," he said. "Just because I see a celebrity being nude doesn't mean I'll be nude. My family values will keep me from doing this, and the things I learn in school will reinforce those values."
Damage down the road
Melissa Orlosky, parent and community program coordinator for the ParentWISE Program of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, said young people don't consider the social consequences such photos could pose in the future, let alone the immediate legal ramifications.
Noting that some colleges and businesses now run Google checks on applications, she said educators, law enforcement agents and especially parents must become proactive in teaching child pornography laws to keep kids from making costly mistakes.
"Everyone should be informing kids, parents included. Parents think it's no big deal because it's just a kid thing, but that image is out there forever and keeps re-victimizing this person."
Ms. Podgurski said parents and students should make collaborative efforts to monitor cell phone use.
"Most schools have very strong rules about cell phones, but if you think about it, they're hard to monitor," she said.
She said she has addressed pornographic images on cell phones during her weekly teen peer discussion and has participants sign pledges to "not use cell phones in any way that is disrespectful." But she, too, says stronger efforts need to be made in schools and at home to curb the practice.
"Teens have their own culture, there's no way around it. Part of that culture is cell phones," she said. "The technology is here, we have to work with it."
Beyond the technology, Dr. Hajzus said, parents, schools and community leaders must do more to address self-esteem issues that could lead teenagers to this type of behavior.
"I feel this deals more with a breakdown of self-concept and self-esteem. It leads young girls to seek venues and forums to build their self-concept and esteem because people pay attention to them. Unfortunately, it's the wrong kind of attention," he said.
Trooper Iannace and Detective Overholt, who both teach about cyber crime in schools and communities, agree that education is key to stemming the problem but said the fact that the technology is so new makes it difficult to regulate.
"My generation didn't grow up with it, so they have not a clue of the dangers of it or how to tell children to protect themselves. Hopefully, the next generation coming up will tell young people of the dangers," Trooper Iannace said.
Detective Overholt said parents should not assume their children are aware of the pitfalls of technology.
"We teach [children] to drive before we give them the car. Do we teach them the do's and don'ts of technology before we give them the phone? Did we really teach them how to communicate, or did we just take it for granted that they know?"