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Dysart Willis

Education: The first step in countering child pornography

"There ought to be a law!" How many of us in North Carolina have ever heard that line? How many of us have uttered it? In many instances, there probably is a law that addresses whatever concern is behind the cry. Few may know about it. Or, they may have a difference in understanding about what actions might result in someone being charged with a crime for doing something they really didn't know was illegal.

Then, there can be times when prosecution of the law seems to conflict with the letter of the law, creating confusion that snags individuals in an unexpected legal quagmire. This has happened in any number of instances, including in some cases of alleged child pornography. To craft a strong defense, experienced legal counsel should be consulted.

Many would surely argue that preventing crime before it happens is preferable to punishing it afterward. If someone is confused or unaware of the law, education might help. The question to ask then might be when should that education begin?

In one Virginia county and about 4,000 school districts in the U.S., the philosophy seems to be to start the process early.

A lot of the focus of this education is on computing technology, its use and misuse. In the early going, the target audience was parents. But as the reach of devices has broadened with smartphones and tablets, the age demographic has shifted lower. Now classes of 11- and 12-year-olds are getting instruction from police officers about what constitutes inappropriate online behavior and what to do when it is encountered.

One key message offered in the classes is that kids should not shy away from telling their parents if something online upsets them, perhaps especially if a stranger contacts them or they are asked to start sending pictures of themselves.

Another key message to the Virginia children is that, while it is illegal to have a picture of a nude person under age 18, a 14-year-old with such pictures could be prosecuted as an adult. Obviously, that's something worth avoiding.