The Suburbanite
  • Program warns kids, parents of lifelong consequences of cyberbullying

  • The judges of Stark County’s Family Court want kids to think before they post. A new program will teach kids and parents about the dangers of sexting and cyberbullying, and help offenders avoid being labeled convicted felons for life.

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  • A 14-year-old girl takes a partially nude photo of herself and sends it to her boyfriend via text message.
    That’s a felony.
    He forwards it to a friend. Another felony.
    A bunch of guys in a locker room use their iPhones to video the scrawny kid in his underwear.
    Felony, felony, felony.
    They post it on YouTube or text it to friends?
    That would be additional charges.
    These are a few examples Judge Rosemarie Hall of Stark County Family Court cites when she discusses the consequences kids face when they make bad decisions regarding the Internet and texting.
    Charges, she said, could range from disseminating materials harmful to a minor to child pornography, which can mean being labeled a sexually oriented offender for life.
    It’s why Hall and her fellow judges, Jim James and Michael Howard, along with staff members, are offering free informational seminars targeting kids, parents and educators. The education phase will be followed by the court implementing a diversion program for offenders in 2013.
    The first stage for the court, said Hall, is a presentation called, “Think Before You Post.”
    Some examples they present are funny, but actually amount to criminal behavior.
    “Most kids don’t have a clue that they are committing crimes,” Hall said.
    Cyberbullying will be addressed as well, she added.
    A second seminar offered to parents and school parent organizations will educate them about the dangers and prevention of cyberbullying.
    With the recent passage of the Jessica Logan Act in Ohio, school districts are required to include cyberbullying and electronic harassment in their anti-bullying and harassment policies.
    The policy extends off school grounds and on school buses if it affects the education progress. Schools are compelled to investigate all claims of electronic bullying.
    “Prosecutors are getting phone calls. They are struggling to determine charges,” said Hall, who calls cyberbullying, “an epidemic. This is not a knee-jerk reaction. So many parents say they have seen it online.”
    She added that the previous tactic of many parents to delete offending posts and text messages and hope they go away, will no longer be sufficient.
    Intake officer Jacob Morgan is tasked with explaining to parents and schools the technology side of criminal behavior.
    “Just because it’s deleted doesn’t mean it can’t be found. It can be traced and it can be found,” said Morgan, who lets those in authority know how savvy students get around their filters and blocks.
    It’s also his job to secure evidence from phones and computers used by juveniles.
    Hall said Morgan can find things on phones the kids had long-ago forgotten.
    Page 2 of 2 - Storage for phone companies is cheap and evidence is easily available, even after deleted from a phone, Morgan said. And if he can’t find it?
    “Phone companies hire the best and the brightest. They can help,” he said.
    The juvenile court will launch a diversion program in 2013 in hopes that those who fall through the cracks can learn from their mistake and avoid a criminal record.
    Here’s how it will work.
    If a juvenile is found to be guilty or “delinquent” on a charge related to electronic harassment or sexting (what the Supreme Court calls “digital exhibitionism”), then he or she will be offered the diversion program. If the offender declines, the felony will go on his or her record. (Diversion will not be offered to those with a criminal history or violent record.)
    If the offender agrees to diversion, said Hall, then he or she will be given community service, fees and fines, and have phone and Internet privileges taken away.
    The court-based program will last three to six months depending on the charges. Offenders will gradually earn their Internet and phone privileges back.
    “If we find out the parents went out and bought them a new phone, the deal is off. This is a one-time shot,” Hall emphasized. “If they complete it, it’s off their record like it never happened.”
    Stark County will be the third county in Ohio to offer diversion to juveniles for these offenses. Materials and staff time will be funded by grants.
    Hall said that laws are not keeping up with technology but this is a way the courts can be proactive.
    “Kids do stupid things. I see good kids make stupid mistakes,” she said. “I don’t want them to be affected for the rest of their lives by this.”