Sexting classes for parents: Sheriffs answer some uncomfortable questions

Last night, roughly thirty parents watched detective Tony Garza and his fellow officers talk about sexting for an hour and a half. The trend is a rising one in Douglas County and the nation, Garza says, and it recently became the inspiration for renewed efforts to educate the community about its repercussions at this session and at least two more in May. If the kids don't listen, the Sheriff's Department will target the people who pay their phone pills.

Legally speaking, sexting is the dissemination of nude or partially nude images of anyone under eighteen, which can be sent through e-mail, text messages or any other medium. Involvement is accompanied by the possibility of becoming a felon and registering as a sex offender.

For at least the past three years, Douglas County detectives have noticed an influx of reports and cases surrounding the issue, but until now they have focused their efforts on the age group in action. Through the department's Internet Crimes Against Children division, officers already teach teens about sexting -- basically, not to do it. Ever.

County kids also hear the lecture in their classrooms, where Garza says local public schools broach the topic during students' freshman year of high school. But "whether or not they're taking that information to heart because someone onstage is talking to them, who knows?" Garza wonders. "We're hoping that telling parents to speak with their kids and monitor their devices will alleviate some of that problem. Many parents know what sexting is, but nobody knows how out of control and under-reported it really is."

The department publicized the new educational series through school flyers and local ads in the weeks before it began, and the low initial turnout is typical, Garza says. Although officers have already staged a talk on the topic for at least one local church, Garza and two fellow CAP officers launched the parents program last night. There, at the Douglas County Sheriff's office, they moved through definitions, legal implications and enforcement details before an extensive question-and-answer session.

"Oh good lord," Garza laughs when asked about those questions. "There were a lot." The parents' concerns, which bridged into one-on-one conversations with the officers after class, began with the obvious: What should they do if their kid receives a sext message?

The answer is blunt. "Don't send it, don't forward it, don't show anyone at all," Garza urges. "Call us."

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If the next two planned classes prove successful, the Sheriff's Office is open to making the presentation a regular community fixture. But that depends on the parents, who the department is in turn depending on to control their teens' media routines.

"Establishing that contract or communication with their children -- saying 'We're watching' -- is important." Garza says. "You can't just give your kid an iPhone 4 and allow them to go free with unlimited data."

The next two classes are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 10, at the department's Highlands Ranch Substation, 9250 Zotos Drive, and on May 31 at the Parker Library, 10851 S. Crossroads Drive.

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