Kane County Judges Teach Safety in a Digital World

Kane County Judges Teach Safety in a Digital World

Two Kane County judges are helping students understand how to keep from getting tangled in the darker corners of the World Wide Web.

Kane County Judge Clint Hull and Chief Judge Susan Clancy Boles are taking their show on the road, reaching out to schools throughout Kane County, and letting students know that if they participate in some of the more unseemly aspects of social media — cyber bullying, posting of inappropriate images and video, sexting or harassment — there are consequences.

“As criminal court judges, one of the responsibilities we have is to educate the public on the types of crimes we are seeing in our courtroom and, if possible, to help find ways to prevent them,” Hull said. “This is especially true when it comes to the youth in our community.”

Too often these days, the consequences of bad behavior on social media include criminal prosecution, and sometimes the consequences are tragic. The judges’ fast-moving, tech-savvy Prezi presentation includes lighthearted moments, but it also serves up a serious reminder that teen suicides happen every year, and many of those suicides are directly attributable to the text and images peers post on the Internet.

“If we can make even one student think twice before sending or forwarding on any of this type of material, then we have made an impact,” Boles said.

An Increase in Local Cases

Technology has made it much easier for people in general to commit crimes, Hull said, and it’s especially true for  junior high and high school aged students. Smart phones allow students to communicate with each other 24 hours a day by texting, sharing pictures, and posting both texts and posts.

In the past few years, Hull said, Kane County judges have seen an increase in the number of cases due to teenagers’ access to technology.

“Students are using their phones to send texts to harass and bully classmates, to send partially nude or nude photographs of themselves or others to one another, to forward or distribute those same photos to large groups of students, and to take pictures and/or videotape of school fights, underage drinking/drug use, and other types of criminal activity, like vandalism,” he said.

Teachers in Kane County have noticed that trend, as well, and asked the judges to put together a presentation to give to students advice about the potential criminal consequences of using technology.

There is just a little bit of “scared straight” in the judges’ “Worries of the World Wide Web” presentation, which includes national- and local-news television reports detailing how junior high and high school students — “just like them,” Hull says — have been charged in sexting and child pornography cases.

What Constitutes a Crime?

In Illinois, a student can use a phone to commit the crime of sexting, and in some cases the same behavior can constitute child pornography and distribution of child pornography if the teen forwards the pictures. Students who use their phones to harass other students can be charged with harassment by electronic communication. The photographs and videotape of underage drinking and/or drug use, while not being enough in certain cases to charge someone criminally, can be used to suspend students from school-related activities like sports, band and clubs, due to the student violating a school’s Code of Conduct.

“What students need to understand is the moment they press ‘send,’ they lose control over the text or picture they just sent,” Hull said. “The text or picture, which they have hoped would remain private, can be forwarded, posted, and/or shared with anyone on the internet. The end result is that ‘private’ picture just became the property of the World Wide Web.”

In the presentation, the judges post a redacted criminal complaint from a case in Kane County in which a young adult was charged with harassment due to posting death threats on Facebook. It also includes a video obtained from YouTube that memorializes young students who have committed suicide as a result of on-line bullying and electronic harassment.

“Ultimately, our hope is that we make the students think and, in the future, make better decisions, so that we never see them in the courthouse,” Hull said.

The judges’ most recent presentation was Thursday, Dec. 3, at Thompson Middle School. Hull and Boles are scheduled to give the presentation to Wredling Middle Schools on Jan. 28 and Jan. 29 and to Haines Middle School on Feb. 17. Schools that are interested in hosting a presentation are encouraged contact the Chief Judge’s Office at (630) 232-3440.

“Judge Hull and I have seen the devastating results that can occur as a result of one bad decision of a young person,” Boles said. “If we can get these students to think, ‘Wow, that could be me’ or ‘I didn’t realize what could really happen because of just forwarding on a picture or a text,’ then we have begun to make at least a dent in the way young people communicate today.”

SOURCES: Kane County Chief Judges Office; Photos by Peter Marszalek