January 18, 2012 - By Joe St. Henry
Students enjoy a large degree of anomymity behind today's social media.
They cannot hide from the law, however, if they abuse the technology to harm others.
That was the clear message Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper shared with 100 Lake Orion parents and students on Jan. 9 at the high school.
She has given her presentation on the legal ramifications of kids' poor decisions when using Facebook, cell phone cameras and texting at 85 schools across the county since 2009. Her suprising words have been heard by more than 15,000 students.
"Using a cell phone or a computer to harrass, threaten or stalk some oneone is a six-month misdemeanor for anyone, regardless of age," she said. "Parents and kids are shocked by this, but it's the law."
Cooper also stressed it is a felony for anyone to misuse another person's computer or cell phone, or interfere with an e-mail account in any way.
The easiest way for kids to avoid falling victim to this, she said, is to password-protect their phones and computers - and then not share one's password with anybody, other than their parents.
"We talk about privacy and how little respect many kids have for it," she said. "They give out their passwords and other private information about themselves without thinking."
Cooper told stories about kids stealing cell phones from their peers, using the built-in cameras to take inappropriate pictures of themselves and others and then sending them to everyone in the owners' address books - including parents, family, relatives and others.
Sometimes, the prosecutor added, a kid who owns the smart phone takes an inappropriate photo and sends it to a boyfrind or girlfriend for their eyes' only. Then they break up and the picture mysteriously winds up on many other phones.
"These situations occur more often than ever," Cooper said. "When someone harrasses a kid online, they don't realize how sensitive he or she may be, or humiliated."
The prosecutor also reminded the audience that the age-of-consent in Michigan is 18 - not 16, which many people think. Law enforcement agencies treat underage nude photos on cell phones and the internet no differently than those posted by pedofiles and other sex offenders, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Prosecuting such cases is not easy, but Cooper said nothing is temporary on a computer or cell phone, thanks to hard drives and memory chips. She said investigators often confiscate these devices when looking for evidence. When a crime takes place at school, police often start their investigation by visiting Facebook.
"It's good to know that all we have to do is take the phone to police and they can trace back whoever sent the inappropriate picture," said Lake Orion parent Fred Darris, who attended the meeting.
Cooper also stressted the need for kids to be very careful who they converse with online, for the internet is a favorite stalking ground of sexual predators. Children need to limit who they "friend" and how much personal information they post.
"Kids are proud of the fact they have 200, 300 or 500 friends on Facebook," Cooper said. "I bet they really do not know all of these people and there very well could be predators mixed in."
Darris thought Cooper's stories validated the need for parents to closely monitor their kids cell phone and computer usage.
"Hearing her real-life and recent examples of teenage students getting into situations when they thought the person on the other end was innocent or someone else was very scary," he said. It makes one appreciate being extra careful on what you say via text or on the computer."
Lake Orion High School PTO President Chris Barnett thought the presentation was both "eye-opening and alarming."
"We can't bury our heads in the sand and expect our kids to always make the right decisions in regard to social media," he said. "As parents, we need to be more diligent in understanding all aspects of social media and its implications."
Barnett asked audience members how many know their kids' passwords, check their cell phone text messages or Facebook pages. He said he was shocked how few people do and wished even more people would have attended the meeting to hear Cooper talk.
High school counselor Michele Novak concurred. "I was disappointed that in a district with more than 7,000 students only 100 people came, the majority of them middle school parents.
"This is something that kids deal with every day."
Novak also said it was good Cooper quoted the laws which, coming from the county prosecutor, was good for parents to hear, since many do not understand them.
"I had no idea how much of an issue this is, nor did I know the laws," said Lake Orion parent Dana Bailey. "(Cooper's) presentation was perfectly done, informative and very scary. I was shocked to hear today's world has no concept of inappropriate behavior - both children and adults - therefore the consquences have to be strict."
Barnett hopes Cooper can return to Lake Orion to give her presentation to the entire student body at the high school as a "wake up call."
Novak said this may take place during the spring. School administrators also want to share the information in the students' home room classes, which meet on a regular basis.