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Thursday, December 2, 2010

NOREEN: A sex offender at 12? You decide.

BARRY NOREEN

A 12-year-old girl — we’ll call her Kathy — hosted a sleep-over last summer, inviting three of her friends.

Using her newly acquired cell phone, she and her friends texted a 13-year-old boy they knew. He responded by sending back a lurid photo of himself. One of Kathy’s guests became physically ill at the sight, but Kathy didn’t tell her parents about it, and she didn’t delete the photo from her phone.

Weeks passed and classes started at Russell Middle School. Word got around about the photo and ultimately, Kathy’s phone got passed around and other kids saw the picture. Kathy never sent it along in an email to anyone.

A parent heard about it, the school heard about and the police heard about it. School officials, the police and prosecutors are doing their jobs.

The boy is facing a charge in juvenile court.

So is Kathy. (the Gazette doesn't identify juveniles in criminal cases)  If she agrees to serve 30 hours of community service and write a few letters of apology, she will not be charged with a class 3 felony Jan. 5, when she has an appearance date in juvenile court.

If the case proceeds, she could be found guilty in a “sexploitation” case and she would be deemed, for a few years, a sex offender.

No doubt, Kathy should have told her parents about the photo immediately. Then they could have had the choice of talking to the boy’s parents or just reporting it to the police.

If it had gone down that way, Kathy would merely be a victim, not a defendant. Her parents have taken her phone away, but they’re not sure what to do about the criminal case.

The parents acknowledged that, sure, she should have made better decisions, but she’s 12.

“It’s demeaning for her to go through this,” Kathy’s father said. “I felt like she was a victim and I wanted to press charges, but the detective said I couldn’t because she is a co-defendant.”

Kathy’s been embarrassed and her mother said, “I feel like she’s learned and matured from it.”

Kathy’s parents, as of Wednesday, were unsure what they’ll do about her case. Exposing their daughter to the risk of a “sex offender” label is scary. They could make it all go away easily, but they feel a need to be supportive.

Some people think we can’t do too much to protect society from sex offenders. Others feel we’ve become too cavalier about labeling; that we’ve already passed the point at which the “sex offender” label means much, because so many people have been tagged with the stigma.

Should a district attorney’s office be so quick with the label?

Should the system allow, or even demand, that more discretion be applied?

Is our definition of “sex offender” too broad?

And if you were Kathy’s parents, dear readers, what would you do?

Listen to Barry Noreen on KRDO NewsRadio 105.5 FM and 1240 AM at 6:35 a.m. on Fridays and read his blog updates at gazette.com

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