Sexting — texting or emailing sexually explicit pictures or texts — is surging among teens, legal experts say, and one local school district is stepping up the fight against it.
The Troy School District Board of Education adopted a sexting policy this month that puts students on notice that their cellphones, laptops and other electronic devices may be searched starting in September if there’s “reasonable suspicion” of sexting, and local authorities may be contacted.
While school officials say the policy wasn’t prompted by a specific incident, it may be one of the first of its kind to specifically address sexting in a Metro Detroit school district.
“It was just a matter of being proactive and recognizing that unfortunately across the United States with the proliferation of communication devices and social media, it’s … only a matter of time before this may occur,” said Rich Machesky, Troy’s assistant superintendent for secondary instruction.
Still, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has concerns about Troy’s policy, including how broadly it defines materials of a sexual nature and the handing over of a student’s private cellphone to police. They say under the current definition, biology books would be off-limits.
“Usually, this is kids being irresponsible and careless and certainly not criminals, and they shouldn’t be treated that way,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director for ACLU Michigan.
One infive teenage girls say they have electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves, according to a national survey, “Sex and Tech,” by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com.
Andone inthree teenage boys say they have had nude or semi-nude images, originally meant to be private, shared with them.
A study by researchers at the University of Michigan found sexting is also common among college-age people. The U-M SexLab and Prevention Research Center of Michigan surveyed 3,500 young adults, ages 18-24, and found 43 percent had received or sent sex-related messages on their phones.
As common as it may be, the consequences are serious. In Michigan, youngsters who sext can be prosecuted under child pornography laws and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Just possessing sexually explicit material is a four-year felony. A juvenile conviction for a sexual offense could land someone on the state’s sex offender registry.
A Niles teen was sentenced in December to 20 years in prison for blackmailing a girl into performing sex acts on him and several friends after he recorded an earlier sexual exchange between the two and threatened to put it on Facebook.
While specific statistics of sexting cases weren’t available, anecdotally, several lawyers said there’s no question they’re rising.
Stephanie Service, a defense attorney with Kronzek Cronkright in Lansing, said child pornography laws designed to protect youngsters are now being used against them.
“I’ve gotten a lot of calls from parents that their kids are facing these serious charges and they’re flabbergasted,” Service said.
It’s up to county prosecutors to determine whether to pursue charges and what’s determined to be sexually explicit. Service said two teens can consent to sex at 16, but if one were to send a nude picture to the other under age 18, it would be illegal.
“That’s screwed up,” Service said. “I think that either the law needs to be changed or prosecutors need to take a hard look at whether they’re going to go after these cases.”
Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper has made fighting sexting a hallmark of her 3 1/2-year administration. She has visited more than 100 schools since taking office in 2009, giving lectures on sexting, what’s at stake and the social implications.
Her office is sometimes tipped off by parents, “but mostly we find out when it’s too late,” Cooper said. “We find out when some young woman is being humiliated. We’ve had cases where girls have had to transfer to a different school.
“The combination of not knowing the rules of the road and raging hormones — it’s a bad combination when it comes to being able to push a button and destroy someone’s reputation.”
While Cooper couldn’t quantify the number of cases her office has prosecuted, she said districts ask her all the time to give presentations on the consequences of sexting. School districts vary in how they address sexting, though most say they take the issue very seriously. Dearborn Public Schools covers sexting in its “Bullying and Other Aggressive Behavior Toward Students” policy.
Plymouth-Canton Community Schools uses its student code of conduct to make it clear to students that sexting is forbidden.
“If we even suspect it, we get the police involved,” said district spokesman Frank Ruggirello.
But where does student privacy end and a district’s right to know begin? The ACLU’s Steinberg said standards are different for schools; a district has to have reasonable suspicion of possible illegal activity to conduct a search of someone’s belongings. Police, on the other hand, have to have probable cause that a crime has been committed.
“It’s a much higher standard than school officials,” said Steinberg, who has problems with Troy officials potentially acting as agents of the police.
The district’s policy states “all evidence and electronic devices shall be turned over to the appropriate law enforcement agency.”
Machesky said students could say no to a request to search their cellphone or laptop if a school official suspects sexting; the district would then contact the parents, he said.
If a student is found in violation of the policy, discipline could range from a minor infraction to up to a 10-day suspension.
“The real challenge to policing this whole issue of social media is behavior that happens outside of school versus behavior that happens inside school,” Machesky said. “Where it becomes a gray area is when incidents happen outside of school and may have an impact on school.”
Associated Press contributed.
Sexting: Parent tips
Talk to your children about what they’re doing in cyberspace. Make sure they understand that messages or pictures sent over the Internet or their cellphones are not truly private and those pictures may be forwarded to people they don’t know.
Know who communicates with your children online, both on the computer and on their cellphones.
Be aware of what your teens are posting on social networking sites. This isn’t snooping; this is information your children are making public.
Set expectations; make sure you are clear with your teen about what you consider appropriate behavior.