By Sara Goldsmith Schwartz
You may have observed the recent increase in news coverage of sexting incidents involving teenagers. For example, a 16-year-old California high school student was recently arrested on a felony charge of distributing child pornography after he posted nude photos of teenage girls via Twitter. Two of the girls (who had sent the boy naked photos) were also cited for misdemeanor distribution of obscene matter, because their actions are considered a crime under California law. In Vermont, an 18-year-old boarding student was recently charged with a misdemeanor for possession of child pornography after investigators found nude images of a 14-year-old girl on his cell phone (again, the girl had sent the boy these photos).
These examples, and other like incidents, are a sobering reminder that although sexting may be a spur of the moment action by a teenager with no criminal intent, sexting can quickly spin completely out of the teenager’s control, and is more often being construed as a criminal act under the law. All 50 states have laws prohibiting the production, possession and distribution of images depicting sexually explicit activities involving a minor. Since 2009, at least 20 states have enacted laws to specifically address youth sexting (i.e., Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont).
Teenagers are generally unaware that sending nude or sexually explicit photographs of themselves or other minors may subject them to serious legal consequences, the impact of which could endure for many years. For instance, prosecution for child pornography can lead to an individual being included on the national sex offender list.
In an effort to help prevent sexting, we recommend that independent schools take the following measures:
- Ensure that the school’s policies and practices clearly define sexting (including prohibiting such conduct by both the sender and the recipient of the explicit material), noting that it is not acceptable, and outlining the potential consequences for engaging in sexting (including potential criminal charges);
- Ensure that the school’s policies and procedures adequately address sexting involving students, employees, volunteers and all other individuals associated with the school;
- Evaluate the school’s protocols on related topics, such as any electronic communications policy, acceptable use policy, and policies on sexual abuse, sexual harassment, bullying, harassment, retaliation and intimidation; and
- Educate students, parents, employees and volunteers regarding the school’s policies and procedures pertaining to electronic communications, including sexting and the serious consequences that may result from it.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions regarding policies and procedures that may help your school prevent and effectively respond to incidents of sexting. The Firm offers sexting prevention programs tailored to students, parents and school employees.