For Jane Griffin, the principal at Louisiana’s Winnfield High, the moment came when one of her students found a staff member’s smartphone lying on a desk, picked it up, and took a picture of his own genitals.
For Shafta Collazo, an assistant principal at Delaware’s Woodbridge Middle School, it came when a student got mad at his girlfriend and decided to “airdrop” compromising digital photos of her to dozens of other children using a file-transfer service for Mac devices.
And for Assistant Principal Deirdra Chandler, the realization that responding to youth “sexting” is now a part of the job, even for leaders of K-5 schools, came after one of her young students at South Carolina’s Erwin Elementary School sent out sexual imagery of another student to his friends.
“It’s scary,” said Chandler, one of nearly 100 concerned school leaders who packed into a conference room here last month, during the annual conference of the nation’s principals, to discuss the dangers of sexting.
This fraught new reality for U.S. schools is regularly in the headlines, and principals at the conference said they’re overwhelmed by the developmental, legal, and technological aspects of a phenomenon that’s moving faster than their ability to keep up.
“It feels like I’m standing in front of a freight train going at full speed,” said Jay Hepperle, an assistant principal at North Dakota’s Dickinson High School, where he says he deals with as many as two sexting-related incidents a week.
How Big Is the Problem?
The term “sexting” generally refers to sending or receiving sexually explicit or suggestive images, videos, or messages via a mobile device or the internet.
Such activity is nothing new: Education Week has covered the dilemmas that youth sexting poses for schools going back almost a decade.
Nor is sexting limited to students. Educators at a number of schools have landed in trouble for taking and sharing sexual imagery.
But it’s hard to find solid recent data on the prevalence of the practice nationwide.
Back in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life project found that 4 percent of cellphone-owning teenagers had sent sexually explicit or suggestive photos of themselves to someone else via a text message, and 15 percent said they had received such a message. Subsequent smaller-scale studies have typically found higher rates.
For many principals on the ground, though, the problem feels like it’s accelerating at an alarming rate. The dynamics around sexting have changed, they say, thanks to the rising ubiquity of smartphones, and the advent of new social-media platforms and apps such as Snapchat and Kik.
That means new worries about children’s safety and potential landmines for school leaders themselves.
Addressing the principals at the conference, Kansas State University’s Robert F. Hachiya issued a blunt warning for those charged with investigating and responding to sexting-related incidents.
“If you arrive in court,” Hachiya told the group, “you are going to get Monday-morning-quarterbacked to death.”
There’s the immediate worry of protecting children. Student victims may need supports, such as counseling.
Sexting may also be considered bullying, harassment, or abuse. If that’s the case, said Hachiya, an assistant professor of educational leadership, principals are likely obligated under federal laws, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, to respond to an incident. In some situations, they may also be considered mandatory reporters, with a legal responsibility to report potential abuse to law-enforcement authorities.
There’s also considerable pressure to move quickly on investigations, Hachiya said. But things can get dicey quickly.
Often, the original taking and sharing of sexual images is consensual. But in a world where nearly every child seems to have access to a smartphone, multiple platforms through which to distribute digital content, crises can spread quickly, Hachiya said.
Seizures and searches are often parts of the effort to contain such situations. When it comes to going through students’ phones and social-media accounts, though, principals can quickly put themselves in a legal gray area, Hachiya said.
A variety of court cases have yielded no clear guidelines that cover the full variety of situations schools may face.
Then there’s the thorniest problem of all: laws related to pornography and child pornography.
‘A Very Scary Place to Be’
In some states, when a youth takes, shares, or receives sexual images of another minor, he or she can face charges involving the production, distribution, or possession of child porn.
By taking what may seem like common-sense steps to preserve evidence, Hachiya said, school administrators can run into similar jeopardy.
Among the potentially problematic administrative actions he described: a principal who confiscates and holds a device containing sexual images, forwards or saves such images to his or her own files or accounts, or even shows sexted images to a fellow administrator as part of trying to figure out an appropriate response.
For principals such as Jemi Carlone, who said she faced “five pretty serious incidents” last school year at Louisiana’s Belle Chasse High, it makes for a treacherous landscape.
In one case, Carlone said, students at her school had shared sexually explicit images via the ephemeral-messaging app Snapchat. School administrators knew they needed to gather evidence for an eventual expulsion hearing. But they didn’t want to take a photo or video of the images before they disappeared, because they didn’t want to risk being in possession of child pornography themselves.
“I won’t touch their phones at all,” Carlone concluded. “We lock [the devices] up, wait for the police to come, and say, ‘OK, it’s on you all now.’ ”
Immediately involving law enforcement is a smart step, Hachiya said. Don’t forward, copy, share, archive, or otherwise possess any sexually explicit or suggestive images, he advised. And don’t overlook the importance of prevention—an approach that some states are investing in, through laws promoting the teaching of “digital citizenship.”
The reality, principals at the session said, is that there’s no standard playbook for managing sexting situations, which often leaves principals in the unenviable position of figuring it out as they go.
“To know that doing what we think is right in the moment to protect kids could cost us everything,” Collazo said, “is a very scary place to be.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of Education Week as Evolution of Sexting Challenges School Leaders