NAPLES — They learn in school about the benefits of abstinence.
They learn about sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and birth control.
But one thing that is glaringly clear after the recent arrest of four Immokalee football players on charges that they had group sex with a 15-year-old girl: Teenagers today have little to no knowledge of state laws regarding underage sex.
“I don’t think anyone knows,” said 14-year-old Stephanie Gill, a freshman at Barron Collier High School, who attended Thursday night’s freshman and junior varsity football games against Naples High School with her 16-year-old boyfriend, Zach Richards.
According to the 2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 47.8 percent of high school students have had sex.
The Immokalee football players — Kovan McSwain, Joshua Edison, Deonte Clifton and Demandrea Fuller, each 17 — were arrested around 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 16 after a 15-year-old student accused them of gang-raping her the night before outside a portable Immokalee High classroom, across campus from where a junior varsity game was being played.
Investigators say the 15-year-old later recanted the rape allegations, and admitted that she had, in fact, agreed to the sex.
Why then do the football players remain behind bars?
Because, according to Florida law, engaging in sexual activity with anyone under 16 is classified as lewd or lascivious battery, a second-degree felony.
And the law doesn’t just apply to people over 16.
“If you have two 15-year-olds who are having sex, both of them are technically committing the crime,” said Shannon McFee, a Naples attorney who regularly talks with teens about the legal consequences of underage sex. “Either or both could be prosecuted.”
Anyone 24 or older who engages in “sexual activity” with a 16- or 17-year-old can be charged with sexual battery, a second-degree felony, according to state laws.
The law doesn’t stop at regulating intercourse, either.
According to Florida statutes, lewd or lascivious molestation, also a second-degree felony, is the intentional touching “in a lewd or lascivious manner the breasts, genitals, genital area, or buttocks, or the clothing over them, of a person less than 16 years of age.”
In other words, a heavy make-out session could, legally, land a teen in the Collier County juvenile detention center.
“If you’re 16 years old and you touch a 15-year-old’s breast, in that case you’ve committed lewd and lascivious molestation,” said McFee, who added that cases are typically brought forward by a scorned ex-lover or an angry parent.
Those statutes weren’t too popular with teens at the Barron Collier-Naples football games.
“I don’t think the law should dictate that,” Richards said. “It should be the parents’ decision.”
Willy Cunard, 14, a freshman at Naples High School, didn’t think a teen make-out session should be the realm of the Legislature.
“If they love each other and want to express their feelings toward each other, they should be able to do whatever,” he said.
While teachers don’t specifically address the law when it comes to having sex, Collier County schools Superintendent Dennis Thompson said it is possible those things are alluded to in class. But, that might not deter students.
“Maybe what we need to teach them is just because you say you want to do it, doesn’t mean you are at an age where you can consent,” he said.
It’s up to the State Attorney’s Office whether to prosecute the Immokalee football players in juvenile or adult court, McFee said.
If convicted in adult court, the teens could face up to 15 years in a state prison. In a juvenile court, the maximum penalty would be commitment to a juvenile facility until they turn 21, McFee said.
But McFee said he has doubts about the credibility of the 15-year-old accuser, who also accused an 18-year-old man of having sex with her in September.
If the teens are convicted, McFee said it appears they could qualify under the 2007 “Romeo and Juliet Law,” which attempts to correct overly harsh penalties and allows judges to remove sex-offender designation in certain cases.
For the law to apply, the victim must be between 14 and 17, a willing participant, and can be no more than four years younger than the offender, who cannot have another sex crime on their record.
“It’s not something that’s automatic,” McFee said.
The teens at the Barron Collier vs. Naples games had mixed opinions on the Immokalee players. If the allegations are true, some of the teens said the players should go to jail; others said the case should be dropped.
“When you’re that young, you’re not aware of the law,” said Olivia Mead, 15, a Naples High School freshman. “They don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into.”
Kim Rodgers, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with children and adolescents, said teenagers these days are bombarded with sex, whether on television, on the radio, at the movies or even in video games. Pornography is easily accessible online.
Raging with hormones, teenagers can’t rationally process the consequences of their actions like adults can, Rodgers said.
“I think one of the biggest things that parents can do is face their own fears in talking with their kids about these issues, sex, violence and having babies,” she said.
McFee said he believes the laws governing underage sex were passed in reaction to terrible news stories, and have “captured many unintended victims.”
“I think the vast, vast majority of kids don’t realize this,” McFee said. “They think if they’re both juveniles, then everything is OK. The scary part is, most of the parents don’t understand it either.
“It is a scary time and a scary area to be a kid.”
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Staff writer Kate Albers contributed to this report.