Parents, police must guard against sexting

Sexual Assault Awareness Month is winding down.

There’s no way to estimate how effective it has been in calling attention to the serious problem. What positive impacts might result from the attention the issue has gotten this month could be hard to assess.

It can only be hoped that the month’s messages are not quickly lost amid the other issues with which people here are dealing.

The observance provides a window for heightened awareness and for reflection on how communities, schools, families and individuals can become proactive in identifying and, hopefully, helping to address the problem.

Everyone has responsibility toward those ends.

But sexual assault awareness isn’t limited to what people usually identify as the most common examples of sexual crimes, such as indecent assault and rape. There is a new, fast-growing problem – sexting – that must be accorded vastly increased focus, but which has not yet triggered the serious sense of alarm that it warrants.

Sexting is the practice of transmitting sexually explicit material via cellphones or other electronic devices.

While sexting in itself isn’t indecent contact, it has the capacity to be the basis for it.

That’s where its big danger lies.

That makes sexting not only a serious issue for communities, schools and families, but for law enforcement as well.

Trouble is, law enforcement in Blair County has been slow in reacting.

In other parts of the state, including neighboring Huntingdon County, charges tied to sexting already have been filed. In Blair, no police department has yet reported filing such a charge.

Yet, as a Mirror article of April 2 reported, Family Services, Inc., of Blair County is troubled about the increasing frequency of calls it is receiving related to sexting.

Cheryl Gonsman, a Family Services representative, used the word “epidemic” in describing the seriousness of the problem to the Blair County commissioners.

She said calls her agency receives dealing with the problem aren’t from any specific school or area, and that calls have been linked to students in private as well as public schools.

Due to their immaturity, young people often fail to regard sexting as anything beyond “innocent” fun. They fail to realize the many potential unwanted consequences that could be wrought by engaging in the practice, including sending naked pictures of themselves to others.

There are no absolute safeguards guaranteeing that images sent via sexting won’t get into the hands of the wrong people.

In late 2012, state lawmakers addressed the issue of sexting by minors, but that effort hasn’t succeeded to the degree sought, as Family Services’ experience continues to demonstrate. Otherwise law-abiding young people are breaking the anti-sexting law at an alarming rate.

The first line of defense against sexting must be parents. Callers to Family Services are being urged to get parents involved. However, until police become more involved, sexting seems destined only to increase.

During the meeting at which Gonsman spoke, the commissioners issued a proclamation commending people involved in the battle against sexual assault. Hopefully someday they’ll also be able to honor people who’ve provided exemplary service in the anti-sexting fight.

It is a fight that cannot be beefed up soon enough.