Sexting: Technology presents new challenges

Today cell phones are as much a part of some teens as their arms and legs. Unlike older generations whose first cell phones had only calling capabilities, teenagers today can call, text, email, and even go on Facebook with their phones.

With the technological improvements also come increased dangers, including sexting – the sending of text messages with sexual content, such as an explicit text or a photo. Picture messaging is the most common way students can get into legal trouble, but offensive language can also be illegal.

Investigator Jim Valley of the Door County Sheriff’s Department is one of the officers in charge of the Door County Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Started in 2006, the task force is a joint effort between the Sturgeon Bay Police Department and the sheriff’s department.

The task force works with all Door County Schools to educate students about the dangers of sexting.

In the past three years, Valley estimated that 12 sexting cases have arisen in Door County. Valley said about half of those students involved knew it was a crime.

“I think everybody realizes that it’s wrong, but the crime factor is a different thing – and that’s part of our job to make sure the kids are educated,” Valley said.

Anyone found to be in possession of a nude photo of a person under 18 years old is in possession of child pornography. The violation is a Class B felony, punishable with a fine of up to $100,000, a maximum 25 years in prison or both. If the federal government files charges, the crime carries a mandatory minimum of three years in the federal prison system.

Depending on the circumstances of the crime, those caught can also be placed on the National Sex Offender Registry, impacting where they live, where they can legally go within a community and where they work.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, the task force went into all five Door County schools, giving presentations on Internet safety, sexting, harassment and Internet predators.

The task force also holds informative workshops for parents, letting them know what the best ways to monitor their children are, while giving them other tips such as advising that they know how to use the technology their kids use.

“If you don’t know how to use it how are you going to understand how your child’s using it?” Valley said.

He also encourages parents to check their kids’ electronic devices, including cell phones for text messages and phone calls.

“You are the parent of that child; you control those devices,” Valley said. “Hold your child accountable for what they do and how they use these devices.”

Gibraltar High School Counselor Chelsea Anker said the psychological effects of sexting can distract students from schoolwork and home life.

“The way they’re viewed by their peers can affect their academics…and they have a hard time concentrating,” Anker said.

If a student is found to have sexted someone or be in possession of a nude photo of another student, Anker said she cannot do anything but contact district administration.

“I can’t look at it, I can’t take it, I can’t do anything – the child and I could be in trouble for distributing child pornography,” she said.

According to district policies set forth by the Gibraltar School Board, sexting falls under the cyberbullying category. Should a sexting incident be reported to school officials, Gibraltar administration would conduct an investigation as to whether the claims are true, then turn the case over to the police if necessary.

Gibraltar Principal Kirk Knutson said the school has dealt with all forms of cyberbullying including sexting. Parents have even called asking for the school to intervene in cases of sexting when the sexting in question hasn’t occurred on school grounds or with school equipment, Knutson said.

“I try to resolve it as quickly as possible,” he said. Parents of students are notified, and Knutson said he tries “not to demonize kids.”

In cases where it was necessary, Knutson said law enforcement officials were contacted.

The problem with sexting is so prevalent that Knutson could not put a number on the times he’s been notified about it, or how often he believes it happens.

“It’s happening more than I’m ever aware,” he said. “As a school principal it’s a significant issue.”

Sturgeon Bay High School Principal Robert Nickel said he would turn immediately to the school resource officer if a sexting incident arose. He said none have been reported at the school to date.

Sexting also falls under Sevastopol and Southern Door’s Bullying/Harassment policies, which would incite an investigation by each school’s administration into the claims and “referral to law enforcement officials for possible legal action as appropriate,” according to Southern Door’s policy.

Valley spoke with district administrators from all Door County schools about giving presentations this school year. No definitive dates have been set yet, but Valley said addressing the students is the best way to educate them.

“What we can do to get a good handle on it is through education and educating teens that once your picture goes out there, you’re not getting it back,” Valley said.