School system enacts rules against sexting'
Growing trend of sending racy messages leads educators to include the term sexting' in disciplinary guidelines for students, alongside gang activity and physical assault
Ask a parent about sexting and you may get a blank stare. But most Frederick County teens will know exactly what you are talking about.
Sexting, which is the act of sending nude or partially nude photos by cell phone, is becoming a popular habit of camera-phone equipped teens nationwide and Frederick County is not an exception.
"I noticed it in middle school when kids started getting cell phones," said Sarah Hauver, 17.
The Walkersville High School senior, who recently gave up Facebook for more face time with her friends, says she has never sent out such a message, but she is familiar with the trend and knows at least one person who has sent one.
When she was in ninth grade, two girls at her school got in trouble for sending out provocative videos and images of themselves via phone message, she said. The images were only meant for specific boys, but ended up getting leaked to dozens of other students, causing a major embarrassment, Sarah said.
"It got around really fast," she said.
The trend is a growing concern for educators in Frederick County, leading them for the first time this year to include the term "sexting" in disciplinary guidelines for students, alongside gang activity and physical assault.
Sexting now is a separate violation within Frederick County Public Schools' bullying regulations and, depending on the scale of the offense, the punishment for students who send these messages ranges from suspension and a parent conference to expulsion. Schools can also report offenders to law enforcement if they suspect a violation of criminal law, according to Ann Bonitatibus, the school system's associate superintendent for secondary schools.
"As the technology evolves, we have to keep up with it," she said. "And (sexting) impacts school environment."
Bonitatibus could not say how often Frederick County school officials deal with such cases, but she said it has happened in the past.
"Students have been found with inappropriate pictures on their cell phones," she wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette.
Sexting does not only affect students, but can also be dangerous for teachers or administrators because the law has revealed that they cannot possess or view sext messages either, Bonitatibus added.
The school system now advises teachers and administrators not to look at images on students' phones if they suspect they may be able to find controversial images. When teachers confiscate students' phones, they are supposed to bring it to administrators who can contact parents and, if necessary, law enforcement.
According to school officials, one reason for heightened awareness of sexting is a number of high-profile cases nationwide, which illustrate the serious legal, criminal and psychological implications of sexting.
Revealing images of teens can be viewed as child pornography in court, causing students, or teachers who picked up students' phones, to face criminal charges.
In Frederick County, forwarding a sexually explicit message could constitute distribution of child pornography if the forwarded image rises to the level where it can be considered a pornographic image, according to Frederick County State's Attorney Charlie Smith (R).
Smith said that for the most part in Frederick County, cases related to sexting have been handled as cases of telephone harassment or misuse. Since most of the cases include juveniles he could not give out specific information.
In Florida for example, an 18-year-old was charged with distributing child pornography and has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life because after a fight with his 16-year-old girlfriend, he forwarded her naked photo in an e-mail to dozens of people, according to an April 2009 story by CNN.
And in Virginia's Loudoun County schools, assistant principal Ting-Yi Oei fought charges for possessing child pornography for nearly a year, because he had confiscated a student's phone that containeda revealing photo of another teenager. The assistant principal was finally cleared in April 2009 and he published a letter in The Washington Post warning educators about his experience.
According to Jamie Cannon, the school system's legal counsel, such cases illustrate the gray areas in the law. The problem is that in some cases minors who sent out sext messages, could be punished under the same laws that were created to protect them from predators.
But until the law catches up with the modern technology used by teens, school officials have to work with parents to ensure that students understand that seriousness of sexting, said Cannon who this year has put together a special presentation on the issue for school counselors.
"What I am finding is that kids are viewing this as no big deal," said Cannon, who is also concerned about the trend as the mother of a teenage daughter.
Sarah Hauver, the Walkersville High School senior, and Margo Dawes, a senior at Frederick High School and a student member of the school board, agree with that observation.
"To me it's crazy, I would never do that," Sarah said. "But I guess it is very easy to hide behind a phone."
The typical scenario is for a student to send a racy image to a boyfriend or a girlfriend, trusting that it would stay private, Dawes said.
"Usually it is girls sending pictures to guys," she said. But when the relationship dissolves, the photos can become material for revenge or getting even, Dawes said.
"It is something that is so much a part of high school," Dawes said. "And I am not sure that people realize that it is punishable."
That is why school officials now are focused on educating students not to even take a chance with sexting, said Janet Shipman, the system's coordinator for counseling and student support.
When counselors address the issue with students now, they try to stress that you cannot trust anyone with a compromising photo or image.
"It is scary," Shipman said. "I know they can't conceptualize the outcome. But it is the emotional damage that cannot be taken back. We need to share this with kids and get them beyond this won't happen to me' mentality."
A 2009 Cox Communications Teens Online and Wireless Safety survey, studied the attitudes toward
sexting among 655 U.S. teens ages 13 through 16. Here are some of the findings.
Who is sexting meant for:
-Boyfriend / girlfriend 60 percent
-Someone a teen had a crush on 21 percent
-Ex-boyfriend / ex-girlfriend 19 percent
-Best friend 14 percent
-Other friends 18 percent
-Someone they didn't know 11 percent
-Classmates 4 percent
-Someone else 14 percent
-Decline to answer 3 percent
Why send a sext message?
-Someone asked them to 43 percent
-To have fun 40 percent
-To impress someone 21 percent
-To feel good about themselves 18 percent
-To try to date someone 8 percent
-As a joke 4 percent
-To make someone jealous 3 percent
-As a dare 1 percent
-For other reasons 29 percent
-Decline to answer 8 percent