Published Online: July 12, 2011

Penalty for Sexting

A bill making its way through the California Senate could provide public school districts the power to suspend or expel students for sexting.

Senate Bill 919 defines sexting as the sharing of a photograph or other visual recording that depicts a minor's exposed or visible private body parts.

The bill adds the act to a list of offenses for which a pupil may be suspended or expelled for sharing sexually suggestive or explicit material though a cellphone or other electronic device.

"Almost all high school students and many middle school students text each other, often during school," said Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who authored the bill.

"But the disturbing part is that these messages are sometimes sexually explicit in nature and include photos, videos and messages, known as sexting. Fact is, sexting is now a form of relationship currency for many youths and goes far beyond what passing of notes was when I was in school."

SB 919, which was approved by the Assembly Education Committee on July 6, next faces a review by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. If approved, it must return to the Senate for concurrence on amendments.

Currently there is education code for bullying by electronic means, said San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff Frank Navarro.

One provision says a student can be suspended or expelled for engaging in an act of bullying, another prohibits harassment and there's a section on sexual harassment.

"If you look at those three sections, from an education point of they, they do have some sections that are applicable when it comes to giving districts the leverage when it comes to sexting, but only the first one allows districts to suspend or expel a student," Navarro said.

"But if this bill goes through it will give administrators the teeth that (defines) it as straight sexting and they'll have an education code that will be specifically for sexting."

Although the bill hasn't been signed into law, education officials said it will help in prevention and informing the public of the act.

"Anytime there is something legislative, it raises a better awareness among the parents and community members," said Bill Bertrand, deputy superintendent of alternative education for the Chaffey Joint Union High School District.

Bertrand said sexting is not a new problem—it's been well known for some years—and they've managed it as part of their routine disciplinary consequences.

Even if the act wasn't done on campus but made its way onto one, Bertrand said it would be a disruption of school activity, which would allow the district to exercise its authority to suspend or expel the student.

"In the event it comes to our attention, there's an immediate response by our school officials like contacting parents and working with law enforcement to acquire the actual images and verify the source of the images," he said.

Colton Joint Unified officials said a lot of students are unaware what they're doing is wrong.

"I think they think they're sending a private message. They don't know that there are state and federal laws that they're breaking ... and if they keep the image on their phone it's considered child pornography," said Todd Beal, the district's director of student services.

According to a 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20 percent of teens between 13 and 19 had sent or received nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves, according to a news release from Lieu's office.

It also showed 38 percent of teen girls and 39 percent of teen boys had shared sexually suggestive text messages or emails originally intended for someone else, according to the news release.

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