Policy Alarm: Beware Collecting Sexting Evidence

Fire Alarm altered to read "Policy Alarm: Pull in Case of Sexting"This post is meant ring an alarm bell for all the teachers and administrators out there who might be in a position to collect evidence of sexting from students. But first a little background if you are new to this topic:

What is “sexting”?

Sexting is the practice of sending sexually related content through digital means. Most commonly, sexting involves the transmission of nude or partially nude pictures or videos. It can be over cellphones, through email, on social networking sites, etc. Increasingly, youth with digital tools are sharing this type of content without any thought to the ramifications. A recent research study conducted by MTV & AP found that:

  • about a quarter of all teens 14-17 years have engaged in sexting activity
  • girls are more likely to post nude photos of themselves
  • most share the pictures with significant others (boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.)
  • 29% share sexts with people they never met–only know through online contact
  • 61% of sexters say they have been pressured to do it at least once

Is “sexting” illegal?

Depends on the ages of the individuals involved and where they live. Basically, when it involves images of nude or partially nude children under the age of consent, it is likely covered under your local laws dealing with child pornography. This means that those found in possession of sexting evidence created/transmitted by minors will be treated under the local child pornography laws–e.g. if charged, be required to register as a sex offender, etc. Various US states and Canadian provinces are looking to change the relevant laws so that minors in possession of sexting content from other minors are not treated as severely as adults found in possession of the same.

Why should you care?

If at any point you are made aware of evidence of sexting, you will need to react in some manner. How you react may mean the difference between a future in education or in court. You need to be VERY careful how you handle that evidence–especially how it’s collected, how it is stored and WHERE it is stored. This is a discussion that most school boards and teachers’ associations should be having right now–if they haven’t already. Your district, your teachers’ association, your administrators’ association should be very clear regarding the legal framework you are working under with regard to sexting, collection of evidence of sexting, and transmission of sexting evidence to police, RCMP or other bodies.

What you absolutely don’t what to have happen is what happened to Ting-yi Oei in Virginia. He was a long time veteran vice principal whose entire career and future was called into question when he collected evidence of sexting and ended up in a witch-hunt accused of possessing child pornography.(Read K. Zetter’s piece in Wired,  ” ‘Sexting’ Hysteria Falsely Brands Educator as Child Pornographer.”) In a recent Canadian case, Richard Cole, a secondary school communications teacher in Sudbury, Ontario collected evidence of sexting from student emails on the network and found himself and his harddrive (that contained personal information) the subject of search and seizure. (Read more on the Cole case in Kirk Makin’s online Globe & Mail article.)

Does Your School Have a Policy?

If so, review it! If not, get on it!

If your school or district has a sexting policy in place, be very clear on how evidence is to be handled and collected. Make sure that there is a clear directive to collect evidence from an administrator. For example, a policy, an email–just some record that indicates that YOU personally were required to collect the evidence. Your school should also clearly define where that data will be stored and a chain of custody for that data, and how that data will be transmitted to authorities when necessary. For example, you should NEVER store that kind of evidence on your personal digital devices that you bring to school. If your school encourages–or even just tolerates–individuals using their own devices on the job, your personal devices are not the place for that evidence to reside. Storing on your personal devices can call your motivation into question.

Review your school or district policy for any point at which you might become vulnerable to accusations of possessing, storing or transmitting child pornography.

If you are looking for some examples of how to deal with sexting, take a look at the Miami-Dade School District’s approach here: Empowering Students to Engage in Positive Communication: A Guide to Combat Student Sexting. District administrators are charged with ensuring that the fewest individuals possible handle the evidence, and that it is “immediately labeled and placed in a safe and secure location”. Faculty who confiscate equipment must “immediately“[their policy bolding] turn over the equipment to the principal or his/her designee. Pages 15 and following are particularly relevant. Even schools that already have sexting policies, might have something to gain from a review of the Miami-Dade approach. Their appendix, “Comprehensive Procedure to Combat Sexting Action Plan” (p. 23)  defines benchmarks, action steps, and key deliverables in a manner I have rarely seen with regard to moving from policy to practice and page 24 has a “handout” to raise awareness of the issue.

In all cases you need to be aware of the legal framework within which you and your school are operating. The US National School Boards Association’s Council of School Attorneys published “Sexting at School: Lessons Learned the Hard Way” (February 2010) which provides some excellent ideas for the development of sexting policy and procedures. I wish we had a similar resource for my British Columbia & Canadian context. (I have hopes that we will see something like that soon.) Even if you do have a local legal framework, I firmly believe you also need to be aware of how such cases are handled elsewhere. The time is coming when a “reasonable” administrator or educator could be considered responsible for staying current on how other jurisdictions are handling sexting–especially when such knowledge could reasonably prevented a negative situation.

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2 Responses to Policy Alarm: Beware Collecting Sexting Evidence

  1. Tom King says:

    Has the world changed in my 70 years on this planet or what?

    From the game of “Post Office” to Online Porno….what hath the Tech-gods wrought?

    • jhengstler says:

      I don’t think it’s technology that brought us to this pass, but the abdication of the ‘older’ ( including anyone over 25) generation to supervise & guide what youth are up to. Many ‘adults’ are late adopters of technology–too much work? To foreign? Whatever the reason, without some mature perspective digital environments–especially social ones–have become “Lord of the Flies”. As the “elders” we have a moral & ethical responsibility to get into the digital game & guide youth from digital natives to digital citizens. This post focuses on the dangers for adults dealing with evidence of texting–but know that I believe we as educators have another task here–guiding youth to digital citizenship including communications that respect themselves & others. In the coming weeks, I will be hammering out my expectations of a ‘digital citizen’–and likely will be blogging about it here.

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