A case of lewd photos? Or a case of kids today?
By JOUNICE L. NEALY
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2001
Bernie McCabe appreciates the sentiment of people who think it is excessive to file felony charges against six Boca Ciega High School teenagers accused of posing nude for photographs.
"I can understand looking at the story initially and saying, "Wow!' " the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney said Friday.
But they "also ought to be thinking why these kids were not in school. We'll look at the case to make sure we're doing the right thing."
The arrests Wednesday on charges of second- or third-degree felonies have sparked controversy about whether the students' actions warranted such severe treatment.
Indeed, some counselors and legal experts suggest that social norms, and teenagers' knowledge of sex, have changed so dramatically in recent years that the Boca Ciega episode should come as no surprise.
Prosecutors still are reviewing the case and have not formally filed charges against the teens.
"I am trying to find out more," McCabe said. "We have not made a charging decision in the case yet."
The students skipped school Monday, went to the home of one of them and took the pictures. A girl brought the set of 20 pictures on campus, and a school resource officer confiscated them.
The pictures showed four boys and three girls fondling or kissing each others' body parts. The teens were either naked or partly naked.
Three of the 16-year-olds were arrested by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office on charges of sexual performance by a child, a third-degree felony. The other three were accused of a more serious second-degree felony, lewd and lascivious exhibition, because they posed with or photographed a 14-year-old girl. She was not charged because she is considered a victim.
McCabe pointed out that, in the juvenile system, such charges would be handled as delinquent acts. If the defendant got into more trouble later in life, the delinquent act could be counted as a felony under sentencing guidelines.
"It's potentially serious, but they are not felons," McCabe said. "It has potential consequences. We'll look at it closely and try to do what the right thing is."
Some legal experts and adolescent counselors view the teens' behavior as normal, given the current definition of society's norms.
"No. 1, (parents) shouldn't be surprised," said Dr. Denis Donovan, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. "If parents think that these things aren't going on fairly often just in the teenaged world, they've spent too long at the golf course. You know darn well that many kids go into their early teens with personal sexual knowledge."
Although that was not the rule decades ago, Donovan said that teens develop that knowledge from TV and their peers.
"But today it doesn't have to be peers," Donovan said. "In fact, two absolutely inexperienced young teenagers or younger can embark upon sexual gymnastics . . . because each of them just saw it the night before on TV."
Michael Eastridge, a St. Petersburg psychologist, said that it is important to consider the maturity of the teens to evaluate the punishment.
"Sexual play is a normal part of adolescence," he said. "The fact that they had a camera involved, that's unfortunate. They should certainly know better to take pictures and have those pictures at school."
It is also imperative to decide whether one teen was taking advantage of another teen, which could indicate serious criminal intent, Eastridge said.
But that doesn't rule out the need for common sense, some legal experts said.
"I really do not think the citizens want children who are experimenting with each other to be prosecuted," said Steve Bartlett, a criminal defense attorney based in Palm Harbor.
"High school kids making out," he said. "Do we really want to cross that line to have one kid prosecuted because he wanted to get to second base?"
Prosecutors do have lines that usually don't get crossed.
For example, officials don't aggressively pursue details of teenage pregnancies unless parents alert authorities.
"Are you going to charge that girl? Unlikely," McCabe said. "I don't think you'd get a lot of cheers for that."
Plus, it would be impractical in terms of time and money.
A Madeira Beach woman who knows four of the teenagers in the Boca Ciega case said the investigation is a waste of time.
"These are not bad kids; they're just being silly," Lisa Brois said. "I'm angry that my taxpayers' dollars are being wasted that way. It's not right."
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