By Neal P. Goswami
BARRE - Administrators at Harwood Union High School in South Duxbury plan to spend time over the school year engaging students and parents in public discourse on the dangers of illegally exchanging explicit photos.
The effort was prompted by a long-term “sexting” ring uncovered last year at Harwood Union High School. According to an op-ed piece written by Washington West Supervisory Union Superintendent Brigid Scheffert and published Wednesday in the Burlington Free Press, the Vermont State Police subpoenaed about 2,000 pages of texting and messages from Facebook from the accounts of Harwood Union High School students last year.
“I was shocked not only at what I saw, but how extensive the entire case was. I also learned that sexting and the other behaviors … are rampant in high schools throughout Vermont,” she wrote.
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,” Scheffert, who did not return a message Wednesday seeking comment, wrote.
Similar situations have occurred in Milton and St. Albans. The incidents of sexting, the practice of sending naked or explicit photos of oneself to another person, raises questions about how they can be prevented.
- The parents can stop buying their children cell phones with all the gadgets! All they need is basic phone capability to use in case of an emergency. That would stop it.
Parents, according to information provided by the National Crime Prevention Council, should 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.
The state 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 the state’s child pornography statutes for a second offense by a minor.
Additionally, if images were voluntarily provided, a minor caught sending or receiving explicit images will be charged as a juvenile and referred to the diversion program. A minor’s record can be expunged when they turn 18 if the diversion program is successfully completed.
Nobody 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. Even if convictions get avoided, college acceptances, scholarships, and admission into military academies can go up in smoke, not to mention future employment opportunities,” Scheffert wrote. “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,” according to Scheffert. Some school discipline has been handed down “where warranted,” she wrote.
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. There’s lots of research that shows that punishment doesn’t make things better or make people smarter,” she said.
- Funny how they say this when it's not an ex-sex offender.
Rather, 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. Byrd 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.
Meanwhile, the needs of the female students whose pictures were initially sent voluntarily before being distributed beyond their intention must also be addressed.
- So are you saying that males do not send nude photos? Why just single out females here when males do it as well?
“I would say they were unwitting accomplices,” Byrd said. “They took some actions that put them at risk without realizing they could be exploited.”
Vermont 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.”
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 and procedures about acceptable Internet use including student use contracts. Additionally, efforts have been made to educate students and parents about the dangers of the Internet. But the focus has largely been on “stranger danger” situations and inappropriate sites.