July 24, 2007 — -- Two middle-school students in Oregon are facing possible time in a juvenile jail and could have to register as sex offenders for smacking girls on the rear end at school.
Cory Mashburn and Ryan Cornelison, both 13, were arrested in February after they were caught in the halls of Patton Middle School, in McMinnville, Ore., slapping girls on the rear end. Mashburn told ABC News in a phone interview that this was a common way of saying hello practiced by lots of kids at the school, akin to a secret handshake.
The boys spent five days in a juvenile detention facility and were charged with several counts of felony sex abuse for what they and their parents said was merely inappropriate but not criminal behavior.
The local district attorney has since backed off -- the felony charges have been dropped and the district attorney said probation would be an appropriate punishment. The Mashburns' lawyer said prosecutors offered Cory a plea bargain that would not require him to register as a sex offender, which the family plans to reject.
But the boys, if convicted at an Aug. 20 trial, still face the possibility of some jail time or registering for life as sex offenders.
The boys' families and lawyers said even sentencing them to probation would turn admittedly inappropriate but not uncommon juvenile rowdiness into a crime. If they are convicted of any of the misdemeanor charges against them, they would have to register as sex offenders.
"It's devastating," said Mark Lawrence, Cory Mashburn's lawyer. "To be a registered sex offender is to be designated as the most loathed in our society. These are young boys with bright futures, and the brightness of those futures would be over."
Cory Mashburn said he and Ryan Cornelison slapped each others' and other kids' bottoms every Friday. "Lots of kids at school do that," he said.
Cory and Ryan were brought to the principal's office Feb. 22, where they were questioned by school officials and a police officer. They were arrested that day and taken in handcuffs to a juvenile detention facility.
Court papers said the boys touched the buttocks of several girls, some of whom said this made them uncomfortable. The papers also said Cory touched a girl's breasts. But police reports filed with the court said other students, both boys and girls, slapped each other on the bottom.
"It's like a handshake we do," one girl said, according to the police report.
The boys were initially charged with five counts of felony sexual abuse. At a court hearing, two of the girls recanted, saying they never felt threatened or inappropriately touched by the boys. The judge released the boys but barred them from returning to school and required that they be under constant adult supervision.
District Attorney Bradley Berry has since dismissed the felony counts. The boys face 10 misdemeanor charges of harassment and sexual abuse. They face a maximum of up to one year in a juvenile jail on each count, though Berry said there was no way the boys would ever serve that much time.
"An appropriate sentence would be probation," he said. "These are minor misdemeanor charges that reflect repeated contact against multiple victims. We never intended for them to get a long time in detention."
"We're not seeking major penalties," he said. "We're seeking change in conduct."
Tracie Mashburn, Cory's mother, said they will not accept plea and plan to fight the charges.
The arrests, critics said, reflect a trend toward criminalizing adolescent sexual behavior. Between 1998 and 2002, juvenile arrests for sex offenses other than rape or prostitution rose 9 percent -- the only kind of juvenile arrests that rose during that time, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"More and more, they are criminalizing normal adolescent or preadolescent behavior," said Chuck Aron, co-chairman of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers juvenile justice committee.
Even probation, the Mashburns and their attorney said, would be too severe a punishment.
Julie McFarlane, a supervising attorney at the Juvenile Rights Project in Portland, Ore., said, "Probation for a sex offense is very difficult thing, and there's a pretty high failure rate." Failing to meet the terms of probation could mean the boys would be sent to jail.
Depending on the terms of probation, it's likely that the boys would not be allowed to have sexual contact with anyone or any contact with younger children, McFarlane said. For Cory Mashburn, that would mean he couldn't be left alone with his younger siblings.
"It's been awful," said Cory's mother. "We just want this to all be over. But it will never go away. We'll always remember it."
Berry, the district attorney, said the victims -- the girls who were touched -- were being overlooked. "What's been lost in this whole thing are the victims, who have been pressured enormously by these boys' friends," he said.
Cory, who said he now realizes what he did was inappropriate, spends his days playing video games and basketball. He said he's scared. "I could go to jail. I could be registered as a sex offender," he said. "I think it's all crazy."