It was midnight, and Taylor — a slate-eyed seventh-grader who loved sports, dancing, and animals — was in her pajamas, watching That's So Raven and texting a boy from school, a class clown type who, she hoped, "might want to be my boyfriend. Everyone else in the house had gone to bed. But Taylor — kept awake by the pinging messages — had come back to the living room.
Taylor's immediate response was "No, no way. Taylor had friends who'd sent some, the savvier ones framing themselves in the mirror so their bodies, not their faces, showed. She had even tested out a couple shots herself. She knew the risks: Guys rarely kept these to themselves. Still, she liked this boy. And he swore it would be just between the two of them. I don't feel good about this. It's two years later, and we're sitting on the back porch of her family's rental in Ohio. It's chilly, and Taylor's in shorts, so she's curled up on her chair, hands tucked into the sleeves of her pink sweatshirt.
Her brother, Kyle, 18, and younger sister, Jessica, 10, are fooling with something in the garage. Amy, her mom, is in the kitchen, doing dishes and probably eavesdropping.
That night in seventh grade, Taylor tried simply turning off her phone. When she couldn't resist turning it back on 45 minutes later, she had 53 new messages. In some, her classmate outright "begged," she says. In others, he implied he wouldn't be interested in her — or even be her friend — if she didn't do as he asked. So, feeling cornered and not wanting to "aggravate" the situation, Taylor went into her brightly lit bathroom, set her phone, recording, on a counter, and hurriedly shed her clothes — shorts, tank top, underwear — until she was, as the boy had requested, "all naked.
I just sent it and then I deleted it. It's hard to believe, but experts say the number-one reason boys and girls give for sexting a racy photo of themselves is this: Someone asked, and they didn't know how to say no. In the eyes of many experts, Taylor was the victim here, coerced into sending the video and now vulnerable to more bullying, as well as sexual harassment, depression, even suicide. In the eyes of the law, though, she'd become a criminal.
The people in these photos are models. Kids' sexting has been terrifying and befuddling adults since it took off in the late '00s, when unlimited data plans armed a generation of teens and tweens with cell-phone cameras. No one knows how many kids are actually doing it: One study reported 20 percent of teens, another 4 percent.
In both cases, a larger group admitted to forwarding someone else's photo. But the numbers aren't the only murky part. Because the images are, by definition, child pornography, in most jurisdictions sexting by kids — be it sharing a self-portrait or forwarding one — is a felony, an adult crime punishable with jail time and mandatory registration as a sex offender. Yet it's clear that kids like Taylor and even her crush are different from the sleazebags on To Catch a Predator. Stakeholders on all sides of the issue — parents, educators, researchers, and prosecutors — are learning that it's tough to punish and deter teen sexting without destroying young lives in the process.
So how does a family survive a sexting scandal? The Sullivans were about find out, with the help of a unique program in Ohio created to protect kids from the cruelest penalties of the criminal justice system. It launched in with a simple goal: to educate, not prosecute, teens who have made a bad judgment call. About two weeks after Taylor hit "send," the middle school's principal phoned her mom at work. Taylor was already going through so much. In fact, the whole family was stressed.
The recession had rocked their blue-collar town, where many people work in manufacturing or at a military base. The local plant closed, so Amy's second husband, John — who'd gone to work there right out of high school — had to take a lower-paying job.
Now their house was sliding toward foreclosure. Meanwhile, the girls' longtime dance teacher, Sherry, whom Taylor calls her "second mom," had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. After the call, Amy's mind ran to her tight-knit family, all of whom live in the area. A few months before, Amy recalled, Taylor had shown her a text from a boy asking for a naked picture. Amy had been grossed out, but not alarmed. It seemed like such a ridiculous request, and her daughter had brought it straight to her. They'd laughed about the message and then sent off a joke photo of their dog.
Amy felt she'd warned Taylor a million times not to send out anything personal; she also normally took her daughter's phone every evening. Amy characterizes Taylor as the kind of girl who "clams up" when she's hurting, but not that night. When Amy got home from work, Taylor met her at the door, sobbing. But I also felt bad for her. Taylor was going to be judged for this, but the boy who had pressured her wouldn't be. It was so unfair. She was right: Taylor was rendered an outcast almost immediately.
Outraged by what she had done, the other girls on her team [to protect her identity, REDBOOK cannot reveal her chosen sport] had turned her in by taking the video to their coach. The video had blazed its way not only through her school but two others — possibly three — including her brother's high school. The night her mom found out, "Taylor hugged me and said she was sorry," Amy recalls.
She sensed that Amy's main emotion wasn't anger. At the time, none of them could have imagined the possible penalties, Amy says. That seemed awful enough. Amy told Taylor they'd have to wait to hear from the police. Then she grounded her for a month. Tom Morgan, a prosecutor who helped craft some of the original child pornography laws passed to protect children.
Kids suffer enough in this situation. But law enforcers, for the most part, beg to differ. When a kid gets caught, police tend to threaten the heaviest possible charges — with penalties so high that prosecutors end up wielding outsize power.
In Pennsylvania in , for example, three families successfully sued a prosecutor who had badgered their kids into entering his anti-sexting program over photos as tame as a teen in a bathing suit. It's quite the cudgel: In many states, a year-old boy with a year-old girlfriend is in for heavier charges for having nude pictures of her on his phone than for having sex with her. In Taylor's case, the local police chief called Amy the day after the school's call with an update: Five kids had admitted to forwarding Taylor's video.
The families were coming to the station the next evening, their visits staggered so they wouldn't cross paths. When the Sullivans went in, the cops told them that Taylor had committed a felony. They also offered to show Amy the video.
These kids need to know this is severe. But my daughter is Don't make an example of her and ruin her life. By sheer geographic luck, the Sullivans were eligible for one of the country's only existing sexting diversion programs for minors. Similar in some respects to alcohol awareness classes for drunk drivers, the Montgomery County program had just launched, after a photo of a local girl went viral and her parents pushed to have the boyfriend who'd forwarded it thrown in jail.
Heck Jr. I thought there ought to be something we could do aside from giving them a criminal record. A growing number of prosecutors and legislators across the country feel the same way. Since , at least 14 states have enacted legislation to address minors' sexting, and related bills have been introduced in at least 21 states this year.
Arizona, Connecticut, Texas, Utah, and Vermont have changed their laws to make most consensual sexting between minors a misdemeanor instead of a felony, meaning it can be tried in juvenile court. Similar changes are being debated in Ohio, where the issue is personal for state representative Connie Pillich, the bill's sponsor. Her children went to the same Cincinnati school as Jessica Logan, an year-old who killed herself in after her naked photo made the rounds.
Many of the pending state bills include an "educational component," and Montgomery County's program has become a model nationwide. Today, Heck's chief of the juvenile division, Julie A. Bruns, reads the file of every kid hauled in for sexting. If the police investigation concludes that a first-time offender pressed "send" without malice, she offers the diversion program. Text this to all your friends. Kids who make it into the diversion program can consider themselves lucky: In exchange for not being charged, they agree to check in with a diversion officer weekly, give up cell phone use for six months, do 10 hours of community service, and attend two half-day classes covering issues like good decision making and setting boundaries.
The kids may think, Oh, it's not a big deal. It'll be gone once everything dies down. Well, not necessarily, because if one person puts it on the Internet, it could resurface 10 or 15 years from now, and then you're a teacher or a nurse or a mom. We try to get them to think farther ahead than five minutes, which is where and year-olds are thinking. Classes are partly taught by a counselor from the local sex-offender treatment program, and some kids even visit a juvenile detention facility.
It isn't therapy; it's punishment. But it's better than jail — and vastly better than being labeled a sex offender for life. Experts say what's toughest on a kid caught in a sexting scandal is not being seen naked but the bullying and sexual harassment that follow. Taylor experienced it all: "Every hall I went down, someone called me 'nasty' and a slut," Taylor says. She fantasized about going up to the boy she'd trusted and pouring milk on him, or punching him in the face.