Teen sexting arrests in Payson raise awareness across Arizona

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(Source: KTVK/KPHO) (Source: KTVK/KPHO)
(Source: KTVK/KPHO) (Source: KTVK/KPHO)
(Source: KTVK/KPHO) (Source: KTVK/KPHO)
PAYSON, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

With today’s technology, sexting has become increasingly common with teens, and now some of them - including some here in Arizona - are finding themselves paying the consequences for that risky and sometimes dangerous behavior.

National reports show nearly all high school students know what sexting is and that about half of them do it.

In Colorado last week, a high school football team was forced to forfeit a game after more than 100 students were allegedly found to be swapping graphic and explicit pictures.

This week in New York, teenagers involved in a sexting scandal were arrested.

In those states, sexting is a felony. The kids could face jail time and have to register as sex offenders. The law was intended to stop the exploitation of minors.

Arizona is among about 20 states that have updated their laws and made consequences less severe.

In 2010, a new law made underage sexting a Class 2 misdemeanor.

Without the harsher punishments, law enforcement is more likely to make arrests and uphold the law.

In August, Payson police arrested three teenagers whom detectives found sent naked pictures from their cellphones.

“That’s not something that’s believed appropriate in our community,” said Chief Don Engler of the Payson Police Department.

They also arrested two adults who engaged in sexting with teens. They face more serious felony charges.

Right now, those cases are making their way through the courts, where the minors face punishments ranging from community service to up to several months in a juvenile detention center.

So far, Engler said he's had a lot of support from parents.

“It’s a behavior we're hoping will curb in this community," Engler said. 

Police records reveal two girls, ages 14 and 16, and a 17-year-old boy were involved in different incidents that came to a detective's attention. All of them reportedly sent naked pictures using their cellphones.

The reports also detail sexually suggestive conversations, sexual encounters and videos of masturbation.

"I think they didn't believe that they would get caught or that there would be any consequences for their action," Engler said. 

The legal ramifications for sexting are something many kids in Arizona are not aware of. 3TV spoke with kids from a Valley high school who were surprised to hear teens could get into trouble for sexting.

“I had no idea sexting was illegal. No idea," said one teenager. Another added: "Not a lot of people know it's illegal."

High school students today were pretty young when the law passed five years ago, and since then, word of any teenagers arrested for sexting has been nearly nonexistent.

Phoenix police told 3TV only three minors have been arrested for sexting, violating ARS 8-309.

That law is the “unlawful use of an electronic communication device by a minor.”

"There's a lot of disgusting things going around," one teen told 3TV.

Another added: "I knew a girl at my old school. She had to move schools, transfer schools because she was getting bullied so bad because her pictures were getting around.”

A third student offered another example: "A girl sent a photo to a guy, and from there the guy shared it with his friends, and from there on it just spread throughout the whole school."

Patti Ippolito is the education outreach coordinator at the Time Out Shelter in Payson. She believes the problem is fundamental.

"I really think it's lack of education,” she said.

Ippolito recently talked to Payson students about the legal trouble they could face with sexting.

"I asked how many children, how many teenagers in that particular class knew of that law, and nobody did. Not one person in that classroom," Ippolito said.

Ippolito said the kids don't seem to take sexting seriously and that many admitted to hiding provocative stuff on their phones that their parents don't know how to find.

Ippolito said what surprised her the most about her visit to the school was that so many kids were involved in sexting.

She pointed out the consequences go far beyond what can happen legally.

Emotionally, kids can be taken advantage of, bullied, embarrassed, and most importantly, they can place themselves in danger.

She said the irony is that many parents provide cellphones to protect their kids, but with high-tech cameras and access to the Internet, they could be handing them big trouble.

"There's no limitations, no guidelines [and] no rules. And I think that's a problem," Ippolito said. 

When 3TV questioned teens about whether their parents gave them any restrictions with their phones, their answers were split.

Half said no, and admitted their parents didn’t really know how to navigate a smartphone.  

Others said their parents periodically checked their phones to make sure there was nothing on there that wasn’t supposed to be.

There are many ways parents can monitor the phones they pay for, including using the cellphone provider to limit texts and Internet usage and restrict photos. There is also software that can be downloaded to tablets and phones that keeps track of the activity and sends alerts.

Some experts suggest talking to your kids and having a healthy discussion about expectations and consequences is best.

When asked if making it illegal could actually stop teen sexting, all of the high school students were unanimous.

"Just because there is a law doesn't necessarily mean it's going to stop people from doing it," one student said.. "People are going to do what they want to do."

Copyright 2015 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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