116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Approximately one hour after lunch on a Wednesday, eighth-grader Wyatt Horning's mind is blown.
From a six-person photo lineup, he chooses the person who looks most like a sex offender with long, straggly hair, a wrinkled face and sunken eyes. Definitely the guy you'd imagine trying to lure children into a white van.
But then Michelle Reese, a probation and parole officer with the 6th Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, tells Horning's Roosevelt Middle School health class all six people pictured — including the twenty-something man and the smiling blond woman — are registered sex offenders in Iowa.
'I didn't know women could be sex offenders!' Horning, 13, says after class.
That's just the kind of surprise Reese expects from the presentation on sex and the law she's been doing with Cedar Rapids eighth-graders for the past two years. She wants to teach teens how seemingly innocent acts could mark them as sex offenders.
'You did something at age 18 that's going to brand you for the rest of your life,' Reese says.
The bell rings and 20 gangly, rowdy eighth-graders pour into Gabrielle Cain's classroom at Roosevelt. Three girls, apparently reunited after some time apart, chat animatedly and boys in baggy basketball shorts sling their bags to the floor.
Cain reminds several students it's their turn to take home infant simulators, lined up in baby carriers by the window. Students are graded on how well they feed, change and comfort the computerized infants to demonstrate the challenges of being a teen parent.
But sex education today goes beyond rolling a condom on a banana. More than half the eighth-graders have cellphones, which make them subject to sexting and cyberbullying.
Police charged a Boone 15-year-old in August 2014 with extortion based on allegations he sent text messages to a female classmate ordering her to perform sex acts on him or he would post nude pictures of her online, the Boone News Republican reported. As part of the investigation, police found an online cache of photos and videos of nude, mostly underage girls, to which more than 100 students and former students had access.
Reese shares this story with Cain's students.
'If you're a minor and you disseminate a photo to other minors, that's sexting,' she says.
'Can you go to jail?' a student asks.
'They'll charge you as a juvenile, but you could still end up on the registry,' she replies.
More than 5,000 people are on Iowa's Sex Offender Registry, a database created in 1995 to keep track of people convicted of sex crimes. The registry includes a searchable online database with offenders' names, photos, addresses, physical descriptions and crimes.
'There are over 80 crimes that require you to register for 10 years to a lifetime,' Reese says.
And the reality of the registry is that people don't care why you're on it — whether it was for child molestation or indecent exposure, Reese said. Sex offenders often struggle to get jobs and find housing.
Another way to end up on the registry is by having sex with a minor — even if that minor is a steady girlfriend or lies about her age, Reese says.
The legal age of consent for having sex in Iowa is 16.
By law, an 18- or a 19-year-old may not have sex with someone four years younger, even if that person is a willing partner. Which means a 17-year-old high school senior dating a 14-year-old freshman could have a legal sexual relationship, as long as there's no force involved — but once the older partner turns 18, it's illegal, Reese explains.
There are 123 people required to register as sex offenders in Iowa for this type of crime. Most were convicted of third-degree sex abuse, which requires lifetime registration, but are exempt from the public database because they committed their crime before age 20.
The eighth-graders cackle when Reese describes a scenario in which a high school senior on a school bus coming home from a sporting event moons passing cars. But if the kid accidentally shows his genitals and the mom driving the passing car is offended, he could get popped for indecent exposure, which carries 10 years on the registry, Reese explains.
'Everything you guys do now is recorded in some way,' she tells students. When in doubt, 'don't send it, don't say it, don't do it.'
Lanae Horning of Cedar Rapids is glad her son, Wyatt, heard Reese's talk — mostly because it echoes what Horning teaches at home. The mother of three prohibits her son from taking his phone into the bathroom, to avoid the potential for embarrassing photos, and forces him to watch TV segments about teens charged with sexting.
'It seems like a lot of parents have become more relaxed, but I'm the mean mom,' Horning says. 'I truly hope he's grasping the concept.'
Reese is among corrections officials who want to see Iowa's sex offender laws relaxed for some teenage offenders. A subcommittee of the Iowa House Public Safety Committee proposed legislation in 2014 that would have allowed people convicted of sex crimes at 18, without force and with victims 13 or older, to apply for early release from registry requirements.
The bill was passed in the Senate, but died in the House.
'It's always easy to be harder, but being easier is risky,' says Allan Thoms, board chairman for the 6th District Correctional Services.
The district supports Reese's outreach, so far at Roosevelt, McKinley, Taft and Franklin, because it has the potential to reduce the number of young sex offenders, he says.
Adds Reese: 'If we can't get this changed, then we have to educate.'