Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre, Superintendent of Schools, Jo Ann Matthews, and District Attorney Camille A. Morvant, II, are warning parents and children about the dangers of sending or receiving explicit photos or messages through texting and social media as part of a new public awareness campaign. The campaign is designed to educate citizens about the social and legal consequences associated with crimes like “sexting” and “cyberbullying,” and to encourage parents to pay attention to what their children are doing online.
“The advent of smartphones and social media has completely changed the way we interact with one another,” said Sheriff Webre. “Unfortunately, there is often a dark side to new technology, and when it comes to sexting and cyberbullying, one person’s actions could have dire, and sometimes tragic, consequences.”
Sheriff Webre says one of the main problems is children and parents alike do not fully understand the legal ramifications of such actions, if they even realize a crime is being committed at all. Being convicted of the crime of sexting or cyberbullying, for example, carries a sentence of potential fines and prison time for a first offense. Depending on the circumstances of a sexting crime, there is also the possibility of additional charges such as Indecent Behavior Involving a Juvenile or Pornography Involving Juveniles. Possession of even one photo classified as child pornography could result in a fine up to $50,000 and a minimum of five years in prison.
Superintendent Matthews added, “Bullying and cyberbullying during school, at school functions, or travelling to and from school, is a violation of the Student Code of Conduct and carries with it serious consequences which may include suspension or expulsion of the offending student in addition to whatever criminal punishment the student may be facing.”
District Attorney Cam Morvant stressed that his office takes the prosecution of cyber related crimes seriously, and that these offenses have consequences long after high school. “Not only is a criminal record a tough thing to live with, but having a sex crime on your record will follow you around for the rest of your life,” Morvant said. “You might not think about it when you’re sharing illegal images, but if you’re ever convicted of a sexual based crime, you will be registering as a sex offender for a long time.”
Officials say the “illusion” of privacy and anonymity created by social media and text messaging is another problem. “Once you send or post a photo online, you can’t take it back,” warned Sheriff Webre. “Regardless of your privacy settings or how much you trust the person to whom you are sending, I can assure you once you transmit something electronically, it’s no longer private.”
Parents should monitor their children’s use of social media and smartphone apps and talk to their children about crimes like cyberbullying and sexting. Ensure they fully understand how serious these crimes are and the consequences they could face, including jail.
“We are appealing to parents to become more aware of how their children are now using electronic media,” said Superintendent Matthews. “Most kids communicate these days using smartphones, tablets, or laptops. Phone calls seem to be a thing of the past.”
The District Attorney’s office has taken a proactive approach to the problem, through the efforts of the Child Advocacy Center of Lafourche. Through a program entitled “Protecting Our Children Online and On the Playground,” the staff of the CAC presents a program on internet safety to areas schools and community organizations. A more detailed program is targeted towards parents. The programs focus on online safety, bullying and cyberbullying, as well as the consequences of such behavior.
“When we get charges in our office regarding bullying or cyber-related crimes, our focus is on prosecution,” Morvant said. “But with the Child Advocacy Center program, our hope is to get the message out about the consequences of inappropriate cyber activity, so that our children never get to the point of engaging in harmful activity.”
Sheriff Webre said his office will pursue criminal charges when any such violation is reported, but charging those involved may not repair the damage. “By the time these cases are reported to law enforcement, reputations have already been ruined, photos have spread virally online, and in the most tragic cases, the victim has already attempted or committed suicide,” said Sheriff Webre. “That’s why it’s imperative for parents to get involved and talk to their children about these issues now before it’s too late.”
Superintendent Matthews said, “It starts with the parents to monitor the devices that they provide to their children. Once the school system becomes aware of a situation, we can act, but unfortunately, it is oftentimes after the fact. Parents have the parental authority to inspect and view their children’s social media at any time, which the school system cannot do without some suspicion that a violation of our rules is occurring.”
If your child or another child you know is a victim of cyberbullying, sexting or child pornography, report it immediately to the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office. If your child is a victim of any kind of bullying by other students, report it immediately to school officials.