School Climate & Safety

For Principals, Student Sexting a Speeding ‘Freight Train,’ Full of Peril

By Benjamin Herold — July 14, 2017 7 min read
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For Jane Griffin, the principal at Louisiana’s Winnfield High, the moment came when one of her students found a staff member’s smartphone laying 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 harsh realization that responding to youth “sexting” is now an inescapable part of the job, even for leaders of K-5 schools, came after one of her young students at South Carolina’s Erwin Elementary 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 on July 10, 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— recently, the Providence Journal ran a story about an “online school Dropbox” full of graphic sexual images and videos of dozens of mostly underage female students at a local high school.

Principals at the conference said they’re overwhelmed by the developmental, legal, and technological aspects of a phenomenon that’s moving far 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.

“There seems to be an acceptance among students that everybody does this, and that it’s OK,” Hepperle said.

How big is the youth sexting 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. Teachers and administrators at a number of schools have landed in their own 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 teens had sent sexually explicit or suggestive photos of themselves to someone else via a text message, and 15 percent of teens said they had received such a message. Subsequent smaller-scale studies have typically found higher rates, although the range of results and trends over time vary considerably from study to study.

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 said, thanks to the rising ubiquity of smartphones, a shifting legislative and policy environment, and the advent of new social media platforms and apps such as Snapchat and Kik.

That means new worries about children’s safety.

It also means potentialy huge landmines for school leaders themselves.

Addressing the principals at the conference session, Kansas State University professor Robert F. Hachiya issued a blunt warning about the scrutiny that may await principals 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.”

Worries about search, harassment, and pornography

It’s no exaggeration.

In 2009, a Virginia assistant principal named Ting-Yi Oei was wrongfully charged with possession of child pornography following an investigation of a sexting incident in his school. He talked with Education Week and wrote in the Washington Post about the ordeal, which he said at the time “turned my life upside down and ruined my reputation and my career.”

During the conference, Hachiya described to the principals a thicket of concerns they should expect to navigate when confronted with a sexting incident.

There’s the immediate worry of protecting children. Students who have been victimized may need immediate supports, such as counseling.

Sexting may also be considered bullying, harassment, or abuse. If that’s the case, Hachiya said, 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 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, and apps through which they can make messages “ephemeral” (designed to disappear after a set amount of time) or restricted (available to be seen by only certain users), 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.

Generally, such digital searches need to be “justified in their inception, and reasonable in their scope,” he said. But a variety of court cases have yielded no clear guidelines that cover the full variety of situations schools may face. And even if a search is allowable, Hachiya warned the principals, it may not be advisable.

“If you go on a fishing expedition,” he said, “sometimes you’re going to find fish.”

Then there’s the thorniest problem of all: laws related to pornography and child pornography.

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.

“There are things you can do to get yourself in big trouble,” Hachiya warned. “You don’t want to be the guy who has pictures of the cheerleading squad on his phone.”

‘A very scary place to be’

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” and greater student awareness of the dangers of sexting and other issues.

But even with such strategies, keeping up with the new reality can be hard.

Carlone, for example, has two daughters of her own who attend Belle Chasse. Sexting incidents at the school have made for some awkward dinner-table conversations, she said.

And Collazo, the principal of the Delaware middle school where sexual images spread out of control during a two-week period last school year, said dealing with other parents and their children can be equally uncomfortable.

“These are difficult conversations to have,” Collazo said. “You have to maintain decorum, no matter where the emotions lead, and even when some of the parents are in shock.”

That doesn’t even get into the “time-suck” that investigating and responding to such an incident can become, she said.

And the reality, Collazo and the other principals at the conference 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.

“We selected this career because we love what we do, we love our students, and we think we can make a difference,” Collazo said.

“To know that doing what we think is right in the moment to protect kids could cost us everything is a very scary place to be.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.