I was happy to see typically tough-on-crime Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom take an evenhanded approach to four Lakeville middle-schoolers charged Tuesday in a locker-room photo prank.

But I admit that my first reaction to the story was surprise that this is front-page news in 2012.

In May, the Century Middle School kids, all 13 or 14, snapped cellphone photos of girls' behinds in school hallways and forwarded them to classmates. Then they moved into the locker room, photographing two partially undressed classmates from the back and sharing those images with about 40 students.

The guilty students won't get detention. They'll instead be required to perform community service and write letters of apology to the victims.

Backstrom said he wanted the kids to learn a lesson, but not be weighed down by a criminal record before they even try to get a driver's license.

I like all of it. Backstrom's willingness to give the kids a second chance. The mandate that the perpetrators give back to their community, which is a speedier road out of teenage self-absorption than criminal charges would be.

And, especially, the prosecutors' appreciation for the healing power an apology can bring to victims, if that apology is genuine.

Still, it all felt weirdly familiar, like a cautionary tale I might have read six or eight years ago when all of us -- kids and grown-ups -- were just beginning to grasp the power of modern technology to ease, and wreak havoc on, our lives.

You know, back before cellphones were interrupting church services and ballets, before politicians were drunk-texting, before preteen girls were asking, "Am I pretty or ugly?" on YouTube.

Or before so many kids had to endure relentless cyber-bullying on Facebook and other sites, the most tragic cases ending in suicide. Before every state but Montana had anti-bullying laws.

What the Century Middle School students did -- and, to be fair, this escapade could happen in any middle school anywhere and probably does -- seems like another version of the same stubborn problem we've been struggling with for quite some time.

So why all the attention?

Backstrom believes it's largely because of the young age of the perpetrators. That's why he worked hard to find a balanced response.

"I wanted them to learn a lesson, but I didn't want to leave them with a criminal record for the rest of their lives," said Backstrom, noting that in his day you could never take a secret photo of somebody, because a flashbulb would give you away.

"We need to have accountability for actions that harm a victim. They violated a person's privacy and it just can't occur."

If anything, this story reminds me that youngsters are turning into teenagers every day, getting their hands on cellphones and Facebook and needing, again and again, guidance from adults about how to use our modern toys respectfully. (We should take our own advice, too.)

As obvious as it may seem, we need to keep explaining the rules, including that they should never take a photograph of anyone without his or her permission, and certainly not share it without an OK.

Mostly, we should encourage kids to trust their guts. Backstrom doubts the kids involved knew they were committing a crime, but they likely knew it was wrong, he said. Peer pressure, though, is powerful at this age.

If this story does successfully serve "to give us pause ... to [help us] step back," as Judy Keliher, chairwoman of the Lakeville school board said, I'll step out of the way, even in 2012.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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