Messing with Sexting

Jessica Travis, Staff Writer

A cluster of boys crowd around him. They say ‘You’ll go to prison,’ ‘Isn’t it child porn?’ He got caught sexting, and now he doesn’t know what’ll happen next.

“Sexting” is defined as the act of sending sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone.

“I think as people mature it is natural to want to talk about [sexting],” School Resource Officer Valerie Butler said. “There does have to be a line drawn where it’s very inappropriate and they get themselves in trouble sending explicit material over their phones.”

Butler said when she began her work at West Shore she spent a lot of time talking to former SRO Charles Landmesser.

“We had discussions about how they handled previous incidents and what had happened in the past,” Butler said. “I think it’s natural for kids to start expressing themselves but in a safe way that’s not going to harm them.”

Various laws aimed towards sexting have changed over time.

“It used to be that if a juvenile [was sexting] they could potentially be charged with possessing or sending child pornagraphy, which is a very serious crime,” Butler said. “Knowing that some of these things are natural, [lawmakers] wanted to still make it clear that it was not appropriate but that the actions were not going to cause severe consequences for the kids unless it continued and progressed.”

The first time caught sexting is an infraction (violation of law), the second is a misdemeanor, while the third time is considered a felony.

“If you just do it once, you learn your lesson and that’s that, otherwise if it continues and it’s a pattern of bad behavior then you’re going to pay the more serious consequence,” Butler said.

Some students say the discouragement of sexting has proven to be unsuccessful.

“I mean I have sexted before and I don’t really think it’s a big deal because like everyone does it,” said a student who asked to remain anonymous. “It’ll be pretty hard to catch everyone doing it, because it’s a lot.”

Dr. Sameer Hinduja, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, has written several articles on the topic of sexting.

“We live in a very sexualized culture in society and sexting has become normalized by celebrities, politicians and so much more,” Hinduja said. “I feel like as youths are in relationships, and wanting to be in relationships, and wanting to quickly increase the level of intimacy, they think it’s very natural to go ahead and start standing nude images.”

Hinduja said research shows of the reasons to sext are to be flirtatious, to solicit sex, to get attention, to be funny, to pressure and even to blackmail.

“Blackmail is a lot more rare, but [they could be] feeling pressure from their boyfriend or girlfriend to send an image, whether to demonstrate love or demonstrate trust; kids do it for a number of reasons,” Hinduja said.

Hinduja said sexting is not just limited to high-school students, and that many young adults, adults and younger students do it.

“I worked with a lot of elementary, middle and high schools,” Hinduja said. “We’ve seen it as young as fourth grade.”

Florida laws don’t require a child caught sexting to be severely punished or registered as a sex offender.

“I appreciate the fact that Florida is progressive enough to not immediately put kids on the sexual offender registry,” Hinduja said. “Those laws were meant for pedophilic predatory adults, so those laws should really not be applied to these teens who are doing it without any harm.”

Hinduja said sexting among young people is primarily experimental, rather than aggravated sexting which would have the intent of abusing or harming someone. But Hinduja also warned that sexting in relationships has the potential to become aggravated.

“When you’re in a relationship and you’re young, you think that it’s going to last for forever,” Hinduja said. “I mean not everyone, but some people think that, so they think even if you do break up there’s no way this person is going to harm me, I trust them without a doubt, so I’m going to go ahead and send this picture.”

Hinduja said the vast majority of highschool relationships end, citing research that shows 2 percent of high-school relationships continue into marriage.

“Chances are pretty dang high that you’re going to break up,” Hinduja said. “It tends to be pretty brutal, so there’s all these desires for revenge and wanting to get back at them because they stomped on your heart, and in those cases it’s unfortunate that they have those pictures of you.”

“Sexting: Advice for Teens,” an article Hinduja wrote with Dr. Justin Patchin for the Cyberbullying Research Center, advises to ignore or flat-out reject any requests from others for inappropriate images and to distract the person from requesting inappropriate pictures from you.

“I think it depends on what sort of relationship you have,” Hinduja said. “If it’s your boyfriend or girlfriend and you can’t purposefully ignore them, then I think you have to deflect the conversation into a different direction. But if it’s just some newbie that you don’t really know that you met at a party and you flirted a lot and now they want some nudes, I think that would be a situation where you say ‘No, I’m done with you.’”

Butler said if it came to her attention that a student was being sent unwanted explicit images, she would have to involve administration.

“They would be able to obtain the phone and look at the phone to see if that was the case and then if they were able to determine if there was something on there that needed law enforcement intervention then they would involve me at that point,” Butler said.

Assistant Principal Catherine Halbuer confirmed the procedure.

“We can confiscate a phone at any time,” Halbuer said. “The school administrators are allowed to search with reasonable suspicion.”

But Halbuer added if she had no reasonable suspicion, she would not be permitted to go through anyone’s phone.

“If there is belief that there is that type of image on the phone, I talk to the child. I bring the other one up and I do confiscate the phone, but I do not go through that phone and look for that,” Halbuer said. “There is also the statute involved with child pornography; if I look at [the pictures] then I am now viewing the child pornography, so we do not look at those images at all.”

Halbuer said she would also have to have a valid complaint to confront the problem.

“A lot of times those students will forward us or take a screenshot of the text messages that lead up to it,” Halbuer said. “We do talk to some witnesses. Sometimes we’ll call the parent in and the parent will go through the phone and confirm it or the child usually will admit they have it.”

Halbuer said a police officer would then have to monitor while the student deletes the explicit images off of their phone.

“We can still discipline for texting and sexting that occurs outside of school hours. There is a law that says if it comes onto to our campus and impacts our campus, then we are required to deal with it,” she said.

Halbuer, who is in her third year at West Shore, said she had to deal with sexting on more than one occasion.

“It’s something that occurs at every school. It’s something we wish didn’t occur at every school but it does. It’s the reality of the generation,” she said. “Our biggest issue is to educate the children and the parents about what’s happening and to make better decisions in regards to that.”