THE high school student probably thought he was being funny. What he was being was stupid, and now he's in the kind of serious trouble that could follow him the rest of his life.
Tulsa County sheriff's deputies arrested the student last week after he was accused of tweeting a photo of a mentally disabled classmate whose pants and underwear were pulled down as he used a urinal.
Officials at Union High School said several students were upset about the photo, and named 18-year-old Jonathan Devito as the person who sent it. He was hauled off to the Tulsa jail on complaints of peeping Tom with electronic equipment, manufacturing child pornography (the student in the photo was 16), distributing child porn and violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act.
How serious are those crimes? Under Oklahoma law, it's a felony to publish child pornography, distribute it or take part in preparing it. If Devito winds up being convicted, he could face a maximum of 20 years in prison for each count, a $10,000 fine, or both. And, he would have to register as a sex offender.
That last penalty is especially damaging because that tag — sex offender — would follow him forever. Good luck trying to get into college, or finding a decent job, or even leasing an apartment. State law puts a ton of restrictions on where sex offenders may live — a certain distance away from parks, schools, playgrounds and child care centers.
It's a safe bet the very last thing Devito was thinking about was the possible consequences of a cruel practical joke. He probably had no idea there could be any consequences. Will he wind up going to prison? Perhaps not. Authorities may decide there is a better way to handle this case than to tar the young man for life.
But such cases are hardly rare. School administrators in Oklahoma and across the country are struggling to educate their students and parents about the tremendous downside that can accompany irresponsible smartphone use.
Not long ago, the headaches weren't much more serious than kids texting their classmates answers to quizzes. Now smartphones can transmit crystal clear images in the blink of an eye, not just to one or two people via text message, but to millions with one upload to Twitter or any other number of social networking sites.
The practice of sexting — sending nude or partially nude photos — is approaching an epidemic. A study published this summer in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that 28 percent of high schoolers surveyed in seven schools in southeast Texas had sent someone a naked picture of themselves. Thirty-one percent had asked someone to do so, and 57 percent had been asked to send a sext.
Researchers at the University of Michigan studied nearly 3,500 men and women aged 18 to 24 and found that 30 percent had sent a sext message to their partner and 41 percent had received one. Sexting “is rapidly becoming part of the dating process,” the researchers said.
Such activity between adults is one thing. But when the photos involve underage boys and girls, that's something altogether different, regardless of the intentions of the young person sending or receiving the images. Kids, and their parents, need to wake up about this serious and growing problem.