Police are concerned Ashland teens and preteens may be using cell phones to send sexually explicit text messages and photos — putting themselves at risk of being prosecuted for possessing child pornography.

Police are concerned Ashland teens and preteens may be using cell phones to send sexually explicit text messages and photos — putting themselves at risk of being prosecuted for possessing child pornography.

The Ashland Police Department plans to hold a class at Ashland Middle School next month to discuss the growing national trend known as sexting.

"I think what a lot of people don't understand is, you take a picture and it's there forever. It's just a download away," Ashland police Chief Terry Holderness said. "At that age, kids don't think about the long-term consequences."

Although Ashland Middle School officials say they aren't aware of any cases of sexting among students at the school, police believe it's likely some students are engaging in the behavior.

"If it's not an issue here, we'd probably be the only middle school in the country," Holderness said. "I don't believe there's a lot of reason to believe that Ashland's immune."

Police believe some Ashland High School students also are involved in sexting, and may hold a class there in the future, Holderness said.

School district officials want to try to prevent sexting among students, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said.

"As far as I know we haven't had any incidences at the middle school relating to that," she said. "We want to be proactive rather than reactive."

The Southern Oregon High-Tech Crimes Task Force, which investigates electronic crimes, will help teach the class at Ashland Middle School. Parents and students are invited to attend the free class, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. March 11 in the Ashland Middle School library, 100 Walker Ave.

Liz Edwards, whose son attends the middle school, said she thinks the class is a good idea.

"I know that texting is going on at school, and I don't know how well the teachers are watching that," she said. "Parents need to communicate with their kids about using cell phones properly."

Although sexting may not be widespread among teens in Ashland, students interviewed by the Daily Tidings said they were aware of the issue.

"I don't know anybody that has, but I've heard about it and I know about it," said Kendal Hamilton, a freshman at Ashland High School. "It's probably going on, but the kids that do it just keep it hidden."

A majority of students at the middle school have access to computers and cell phones, said Assistant Principal Ken Kigel.

"I think it's really important for parents to learn what to look for and to know what their kids are doing," he said.

Sgt. Josh Moulin, commander of the task force, cited a national survey that found 39 percent of teens have sent sexually suggestive electronic messages and 48 percent have received them. The survey was conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in fall 2008.

The task force has seen its number of sexting cases increase substantially in the last year, he said.

"We have dealt with sexting cases for about the last two years, but for the last 12 months, for whatever reason, we've really seen an increase in those cases being referred to our task force," Moulin said.

Detective Carrie Hull with the Ashland Police Department said she has responded to calls from Ashland parents who are worried their children are sexting.

"They're concerned that their child might get in trouble for it, because there's the possibility that the child could unintentionally be breaking the law," she said.

Although teens could be prosecuted for possessing child pornography if they have participated in sexting, law enforcement officials tend to try to address the problem using other means, Holderness said.

"A lot of these sexting messages qualify legally as child porn," Holderness said. "Are we going to prosecute a 13-year-old girl for sending a picture of herself to her 14-year-old boyfriend? Should she be going to jail? Probably not."

In December, three Eagle Point teenagers were investigated for encouraging child sex abuse after sending text messages of nude photos to other teens. But Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston declined to file charges, saying that for the teens to be guilty they would have had to know that the photographs were the result of child sex abuse.

There are other dangers involved in sending images or messages using cell phones or the Internet, Moulin said.

"Once those are out there they can never get them back," he said. "They may come back and haunt them when they're applying for job or college."

School officials hope the classes will help bring parents up to speed on the ways their children may be communicating electronically.

Police will discuss the dangers of posting sexually suggestive photos or messages online and sharing information online through chat rooms and social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace. They will also advise students and parents on how to avoid online predators and cyber bullying.

Meeting organizers are encouraging parents to attend the class with their children, in the hopes that it may spur discussions at home about using technology safely.

As they waited to pick up their son from the middle school, Edwards and her husband, Jeff, said they believed communication was key.

"How do you regulate something like this?" Jeff said. "To me it's more about the communication with the child and developing trust. You need to be able to talk to your child."

Police are recommending that parents RSVP to the digital safety class, because space is limited. For more information or to RSVP, e-mail Hull at chull@ashland.or.us or call the middle school at 482-1611.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.