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School resource officers try to educate and prevent social media fallout before it results in arrests

Mar 16, 2019 at 6:00 am
    Charity Hansel, a school resource officer with the Cedar Rapids Police Department, talks with a student before lunch at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Hansel aims to build positive relationships with everyone from students to administrators. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    CEDAR RAPIDS — Two Cedar Rapids school resource officers said about 85 percent of the problems they deal with revolve around social media, and a “good chunk” of it involves students sexting or sharing inappropriate or nude photos with other classmates.

    Officers Charity Hansel and Janae Obbink said they and other officers who deal with high school and middle school students are not arresting every kid who sends these photos, depending on the situation, but they are taking actions to educate and prevent the incidents.

    Q: What are the school resource officers mostly seeing? Boys sending nude photos of girls to their friends, or girls sending photos of boys?

    A: “A little of both,” Hansel, officer at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, said. “It’s been a big problem for a few years now. More girls, who have their photos sent out, are probably reporting more. It’s usually a girlfriend and boyfriend situation. The girl sends him a photo and he shares it with others.”

    A: “It’s usually on Snapchat, where they might have 500-600 ‘friends’ and can store photos, and it’s usually when a girlfriend and boyfriend break up and they revenge share the photos,” Obbink, officer at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids, said. “There was a situation years ago where they were just sharing the photos like trading baseball cards.”

    Q: How do you handle these situations? What options do you have?

    A: “It’s not our goal to charge kids,” Hansel said. “We want to keep kids out of the system if possible. Last year, if they had inappropriate photos, I was wiping phones with parents’ consent, but they are still backed up, and once it’s sent out it’s still around. I tell the parents it’s their responsibility to take care of the cloud — backup. Most of the parents agree to it. Parents just need to take control and monitor the phones.

    “In more serious cases, there was a subsection added to the harassment offense that includes sending out partially nude and nude photos. It’s added more teeth to the law. These would go through juvenile, not adult court. In the past, the only option was to charge a sex abuse-related crime, but we didn’t want to charge that — the penalty is too high, unless it rises to a more serious offense. We do have that flexibility to use our discretion. We work with these kids every day and know what will work — the kids who can modify their behavior. We have a lot of barriers in place before they end up in court.”

    A: “I don’t think I’ve asked for harassment charges to be filed in these situations,” Obbink said. “Usually taking the report is enough. Telling them we’ve documented it, so going forward this will affect further actions, and when the parents get involved — it’s usually enough. About 90 percent of the time, it may just be inappropriate photos — girl in a bra and panties — which doesn’t meet the state code for a charge. Most of the time, we are tracking down students to get to who sent it out. These cases are time-consuming.”

    Q: Why do the students send out these photos?

    A: “I never thought I would have to teach kids to protect their bodies,” Hansel said. “They are so desensitized and don’t think about what they are doing. They want to be liked and want to belong. Their brains are not fully developed and they have no impulse control. It’s a terrible dynamic. If they would just stop and wait 10 seconds or so before pressing send, they might think better about sending that comment or photo.”

    A: “Some of the younger girls are just wrapped up in their emotions over these boys and trust them with these photos,” Obbink said. “I can’t quite wrap my head around the why they do it. They don’t realize that these photos will be out there forever and for anybody to see. Recently, there was a girl who sent out photos as a sophomore and three years later they have resurfaced again.”

    Q: How much do kids report an inappropriate photo?

    A: “They are reporting more, but there are probably so many we don’t know about each day,” Obbink said. “Two girls came to me the other day and said they saw a photo of one of their classmates going around but were afraid to tell the girl and asked if I would tell her. That’s something we can do and we will follow it up. They had an idea of who sent it out and as I’ve talked to others, now I have several names to follow up. This is usually the way it works. You talk to one and they admit seeing the photo but say they don’t know why the person sent it to them and delete it but don’t report it.”

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