‘Sexting’ phenomenon raises questions for schools, parentsBy Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | September 12,2013SOUTH DUXBURY — Administrators at Harwood Union High School will talk to students and parents about the dangers of illegally exchanging explicit photos after a “sexting” ring was uncovered last year.
Brigid Scheffert, superintendent of the Washington West Supervisory Union, wrote in an opinion piece published Wednesday in the Burlington Free Press that Vermont State Police subpoenaed Facebook for about 2,000 pages of texting and messages from Harwood students last year.
“I was shocked not only at what I saw, but how extensive the entire case was,” Scheffert wrote. “I also learned that sexting and the other behaviors … are rampant in high schools throughout Vermont.”
An investigation by both school officials and law enforcement revealed that about 20 female students had sent “very graphic naked pictures” of themselves to their boyfriends, Scheffert wrote.
As many as 30 male students shared the pictures and began trading and “collecting them like baseball cards” over a two-year period, she wrote. Some students even offered to buy pictures of certain girls.
“I have no doubt that this whole story goes even deeper, but I can only write about what was actually uncovered,” wrote Scheffert, who did not return a message Wednesday seeking comment.
Similar situations have occurred in Milton and St. Albans. The incidents of sexting, the practice of sending naked or explicit photos over computers, cellphones and other devices, raises questions about how it can be prevented.
The National Crime Prevention Council advises parents to use news stories about sexting as “teachable moments” to discuss safe Internet, cellphone and social media behavior. Parents should also encourage teenagers to think before sending pictures or making online postings.
The council also suggests that parents remain calm if a child confesses to sending explicit pictures. Parents should consider talking to the student distributing the pictures, or that student’s parents. If necessary, it should be reported to local law enforcement or school administrators.
Vermont passed a law in 2009 to address teenage sexting. It removed many of the severe penalties previously associated with the crimes that sexting previously fell under.
Now, minors caught sexting are no longer subject to the state’s child pornography laws and associated punishments. However, prosecutors can decide to use those laws for a second offense.
If images were voluntarily provided, a minor caught sending or receiving explicit images will be charged as a juvenile and referred to the court diversion program. A minor’s record can be expunged at age 18 if the diversion program is successfully completed.
No one prosecuted under the sexting statute is required to register as a sex offender. However, when explicit pictures of minors are distributed or sold without consent, serious felony charges can still apply.
“Really good students, making really bad choices naively and impulsively, can find themselves with very serious felony charges,” Scheffert wrote in her opinion piece. “Even if convictions get avoided, college acceptances, scholarships, and admission into military academies can go up in smoke, not to mention future employment opportunities. Our students are unaware of the magnitude of what can happen to them, and their lives, by engaging in these behaviors.”
Criminal charges are being avoided in the Harwood case in favor of an “educational and restorative justice approach,” Scheffert wrote; some school discipline has been handed down “where warranted.”
The Montpelier Community Justice Center is expected to create a school assembly program that will explain the dangers of sexting to students. Law enforcement officials will present factual information about Vermont laws covering sexting, according to Scheffert.
MCJC director Yvonne Byrd said leveling severe punishment at students who are caught sexting will not solve the problem.
“Learning from one’s mistakes works better than punishment,” she said. “There’s lots of research that shows that punishment doesn’t make things better or make people smarter.”
Rather, Byrd said, the school and community should look at ways to hold accountable those responsible for distributing the explicit pictures while educating them and others on the consequences. She said the assembly program will serve as “a very open and inclusive conversation over the year.”
“I think this kind of process is far more likely to succeed,” Byrd said.
She also said it was vital to address needs of the female students whose pictures were initially sent voluntarily, then distributed beyond their intentions.
“I would say they were unwitting accomplices,” Byrd said. “They took some actions that put them at risk without realizing they could be exploited.”
Agency of Education spokeswoman Angela Ross said agency officials are in the process of updating Education Quality Standards that include some reworked policies dealing with “technology use and digital policy.”
The updated EQS will require each school or supervisory union to “adopt and implement written policies on electronic resources, acceptable Internet usage, and procedures for handling complaints for both staff and students.”
Ross said school boards will have to approve the plans, and they must include “strategies and supports to ensure the school maintains a safe, orderly, civil and positive learning environment which is free from harassment, hazing and bullying …”
Scheffert said the supervisory union has developed policies about acceptable Internet use, including student-use contracts. Efforts have been made to educate students and parents about the dangers of the Internet, she said, but the focus has largely been on “stranger danger” situations and inappropriate websites.
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