Missouri law states it is illegal to provide or show pornography to someone under the age of 18. Police and prosecutors say this law may not always be enforced, when a case involves cell phones, teenagers, and sexting.
In April of last year, Joplin police investigated an allegation that nude pictures were being distributed among high school students. Our investigation reveals evidence and confessions. But no criminal charges were filed.
Documents obtained through the Sunshine Law show Joplin police say three Joplin High School students last year furnished child pornography to minors.
"We found there was probable cause that a crime was committed," says Captain Bob Higginbotham with the Joplin Police Department.
But no criminal charges have been filed, despite what police call evidence.
"There was indeed victims in this case," says Higginbotham.
According to Joplin police, more than 100 nude and semi-nude pictures of female Joplin High School students, some of them freshman, were shared among students through text messaging and the internet. Students' names were referenced in some pictures. Documents from the police investigation show one male Joplin High student was the initial source of these pictures, and shared the pictures with two other male students.
Joplin police requested misdemeanor charges against the three students, based on probable cause.
"Probable cause is defined as what a reasonable person would believe," says Higginbotham.
Joplin police say they never received a response from Jasper County Prosecutor Dean Dankelson.
"In this case, charges weren't declined. It's rare that a prosecutor will actually decline," says Higginbotham.
Police requested criminal charges a second time, this time felonies, one year after the alleged sexting incidents happened.
"The media inquiry on this case prompted us to go back and re-examine any crimes that hadn't been prosecuted here. The timeline is such that misdemeanor charges were no longer available to us. But felony charges, under the state law, were available to us. So, just to be sure that we didn't meet the community's needs and not see justice done, we decided rather than compromise the case and put it out for public consumption, we put it to the prosecutor again," says Higginbotham.
E-mails between police and investigators show numerous attempts to get a response from Dankelson. But again, according to police, the county prosecutor gave no reply.
"Under my ethical rules, I'm not allowed to discuss the particulars of facts," says Dankelson.
Dankelson told us he still considers this an open case.
"There are charges which still could be brought in this case, with Joplin High School, if evidence came forward. There are statute of limitations that have not expired," says Dankelson.
Any new evidence seems unlikely, because Joplin police have closed this case.
Higginbotham says, "You can't go back and capture this information and keep it contained for successful prosecution once you've put it out to the public. So anytime that any criminal case is put out to the public for a media request or an open records request, we are very careful to consider, is there going to be future prosecutorial interest in this case, before we close it and open it up for public consumption?"
Joplin School District officials are working on new workshops to help parents and students learn how pictures and information sent through e-mail, texting, and social media can be viewed forever.
County prosecutors say enforcement against sexting depends on the letter of the law versus the intent of the law. According to police, sexting cases involve victims. Police also say that in many of these cases, the victims should have known to not sext.
Cell phones and sexting. One psychologist says teens today are breaking boundaries without a second thought.
"Desensitization occurs over time," says Psychologist Charles Doyle.
Doyle believes many teens consider sending nude pictures of themselves through text messaging, apps, and the internet a right of passage.
"Everybody has a cell phone now. Everybody is using it. Everybody is communicating with it. It's just a simple step from there," says Doyle.
That first step to get those pictures is often times indiscreet.
"You kind of warm them up through text messaging, the way you talk to them, the way you go about saying different things to persuade them into sending the pictures," says "Joe."
A man who we will call Joe talks about sexting while in high school.
"Once you get the pictures, it just pretty much escalates for a guy to just share it with their buddies," says Joe.
Joe says having nude and semi-nude pictures of female students in the same school as him was like having baseball cards.
"Do whatever they need to do with it, whether it's to trade for different ones, or to just show your buddies, 'Oh this is that girl.' Then they can tell everybody else throughout school or wherever else," says Joe.
Doyle says most females sext because of a need for a relationship.
"They want to feel like they're part of the peer group. They want to be accepted. They want to be popular," says Doyle.
But Doyle says to most guys, it's all a game.
Joe says the more a girl refuses to send pictures of her body, the more she becomes a targeted prize.
"It'll be a game to have your buddies try to get her pictures, then whoever can get those pictures will be the guy who persuaded her to do it," says Joe.
Joplin police say last year, three high school students shared more than 100 sexual-oriented pictures of female students.
"I didn't see within the case any specific motives that were ill-intended," says Captain Bob Higginbotham with the Joplin Police Department.
No charges were filed by the county prosecutor against the three students, even though police requested misdemeanor and felony charges.
"Usually, prosecution does not happen in a sexting situation," says Doyle. "But sometimes, when that teenager is 18-years-old and this was used for intentional purposes, maybe to manipulate or harass, or just to shame the person, sometimes the legal system will step-in and say, we can't have that. We've got to stop that."
"When you're that age, they feel like they're not necessarily above the law, but it's, 'Oh, you can't do that to me. I'm still underage. You can't charge me with anything," says Joe.
"There are charges which still could be brought in this case, with Joplin High School, if evidence comes forward. So under my ethical rules, I'm not allowed to discuss the particulars of facts, where charges could still be brought," says Jasper County Prosecutor Dean Dankelson.
But Joe, who was not a student in Joplin, doubts if strict criminal prosecution of sexting would make a difference,
"Sexting is out there forever. It's definitely not going to stop," says Joe.
The circulation of any sexted picture can't be stopped, either.
"We see, in these cases even locally, we see the reach of these comes from an international perspective. We'll see out of Russia, or Germany, or other countries, reaching out to local teens and plying them for pictures. And then once they get one, then typically what you're going to see is a blackmail effort, even if it's just an emotional blackmail of threatening I'm going to share this with the world," says Higginbotham.
Psychologists say it's a bit of irony; a generation so strongly connected to technology can be out of reach with reality.
Police say parents are the best way to prevent teens from sexting, and strict parenting is what works. Parents should follow their children's social media accounts, and have full access to cell phones anytime. Police say if teenagers refuse this access, they shouldn't be allowed to have cell phones.
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