Sexual Abuse or Harmless Horseplay?

Did you hear about the young sexual harassers in McMinnville, Ore.? In February 2007, Ryan Cornelison, 12, and his pal Cory Mashburn, 13, were charged with five counts of felony sex abuse in the first degree.

Police Officer Marshall Roache testified in court about what the boys did to some 13-year-old girls at their middle school: "I remember her telling us that her buttocks was spanked."

And in Waco, Texas, an official from the La Vega Independent School District wrote Chris Blackwell's father that Chris engaged in "inappropriate physical behavior interpreted as sexual contact and/or sexual harassment."


A teacher's aide filed a "student behavior referral" stating that as he waited in line for the school bus, "Christopher called my name, he looked at me and smiled with a great big grin on his face, he stuck his face and rubbed it across my chest and he thought it was funny."

The odd thing is … Chris is only 5 years old. He was 4 at the time of the alleged "sexual harassment." His father, DeMarcus Blackwell, says he was "devastated" when he received the letter from the school.

"That's human, to show this display of affection or kindness to each other," Blackwell said. "At 4 years old, my son is being taught and trained to be friendly toward everyone."

Watch John Stossel's special "The Age of Consent" next Friday, March 14 at 10 p.m. ET

Only after Chris' father complained did the school agree to change Chris' record from sexual harassment to "inappropriate physical conduct."

At least Chris wasn't sent to jail, as were Cory and Ryan in Oregon. Cory's mom, Tracie, who got the terrible phone call, says she was told, "He had been touching some girls and we needed to get down to the juvenile detention. They were arresting him."

'Slap Butt Day'

Tracie and her husband Scott rushed to the Yamhill County jail, where they were told, "We can tell you Cory is here, but you cannot see him or talk to him."

Ryan's dad, Joe, hit the same brick wall. "I thought it was crazy. I can't believe that they could take your kid and just take him to jail like that and you're not able to talk to him."

The boys were in jail because they ran through the halls at school, swatting the bottoms of girls. Friday is unofficially "Slap Butt Day" at Patton Middle School, where swatting butts is considered a form of greeting by kids but a violation of school policy.

Ryan and Cory were sent to the office, where the school's vice principal and police officer Roache questioned them and the girls who were the supposed "victims." After hours of interrogation, the boys were read their Miranda rights, handcuffed and taken to the juvenile detention center.

Attorney and former sex crimes prosecutor Ken Padowitz says accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace have filtered down to the classroom. "We're now having children being charged with crimes such as sexual harassment where these children might not even be aware of what that term means.

"With so many lawsuits, I think that teachers and principals are on a CYA mentality. They basically want to ensure that they're not going to be under the microscope and accused of allowing misbehavior by children to go unpunished. So in order to cover themselves, the police are called," said Padowitz.

Today the so-called victims of the felony sex abuse in Oregon don't consider themselves victims. "20/20" spoke to McKenzie and Madie, two of the girls who were questioned. It wasn't only the boys slapping butts. McKenzie admitted, "Yeah, I probably did slap a couple butts."

'I Was Really Freaked Out'

Debra J. Markham, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the boys, also accused the boys of sexual abuse because the police officer wrote that they had dry humped the girls. But the boys and girls both say all the boys did was "party boy," a silly dance popularized by the TV show "Jackass."

"It's just like a really funny dance," says Madie. "All the boys do it … they like bounce up and down and it's really funny because they look really retarded when they do it."

Although the girls said they felt pressured by the officer's questioning, Ryan and Cory were locked up for six days, facing the possibility of 10-year jail sentences and a lifetime as registered sex offenders.

"They pushed us up against the wall. They took all our stuff, took our fingerprints," Cory told me. "They strip searched us and then they put us in our cells."

Ryan, who says he was strip searched six or seven times, told me, "I was really freaked out. I didn't know why I was in here, what I did that was so bad that could get me in here."

It was two days before the parents were allowed to see their children; jail policy, Markham told Cory's lawyer, J. Mark Lawrence, -- no communications until visiting day.

Tuesday, Day 6, the boys were finally released, but banned from school and from seeing many of their friends. The district attorney, who did not want to talk to "20/20" about this, demanded a trial.

The snail's pace of the U.S. legal system made it worse for the boys and their families. Prosecutors dropped the felony charges in May, but the boys still had sexual harassment charges hanging over their heads.

It took half a year before a judge would finally hear a motion to dismiss charges. This kind of hardball prosecution doesn't surprise Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which works for change in the juvenile justice system.

'Criminalizing Our Young People'

"There's been a disturbing increase in the trend of arresting children for minor infractions that often would have been taken care of in the principal's office or with a school administrator or by simply calling in the parent for a parent-teacher conference," Imani said. "Our future is our children in the United States. And the fact that we're criminalizing our young people, at younger and younger ages for smaller and smaller infractions has to be deeply troubling for anybody concerned about this country's future."

By the time Cory and Ryan's trial came up in August, all four girls had signed affidavits asking the judge to dismiss all charges against the boys, which he did.

In court the boys still apologized to the girls; not particularly for slapping them on the butt but for what the courts and the media put the girls through.

After the trial, Markham spoke to reporter Susan Goldsmith of The Oregonian. "We had an obligation when it came to our attention to act in a way we felt was appropriate," Markham said. "I would bring felony charges again in appropriate cases."

"She's overusing her powers," said Scott Mashburn. "And that's why she's charging these crazy charges. She's just going to continue to do whatever she wants because she has all the power in the world."

Prosecutors do have lots of power, as do police and school officials. Next time we hear about charges of sex abuse, we should think about that because sometimes what authorities call abuse is just a hug or a playful game.

Watch "How Young Is Too Young" Friday Oct. 12 on "20/20" at an all-new time, 8 p.m. EDT