About 100 parents and students filled the Monticello High School auditorium Monday to learn about sexting—a growing problem that has been finding its way into schools.
Due to a recent uptick in minors swapping explicit images and texts, Albemarle County schools and police partnered with the commonwealth attorney’s office to hold a forum to educate parents and students about the behavior’s potential implications.
“What we want to do,” said Albemarle Police Chief Steve Sellers, “is get in front of this as quickly as possible to educate and to deter these types of crimes from happening.”
In a November 25 press release, Albemarle Police Public Information Officer Carter Johnson said that law enforcement has investigated seven cases in a six week period this school year. An additional case has been added since then, Lieutenant Tim Aylor said Monday.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Darby Lowe said sexting generally takes on two forms: the consensual sharing of images between two people; and secondary dissemination, meaning the original recipient forwards the image to others.
“The secondary dissemination of those photographs with malicious intent or harassment is a very serious situation,” Lowe said, “because it ends up that that one photo that one person sends to a friend, thinking it’s only going to a friend, ends up getting sent around to multiple friends…and it spreads like wildfire.”
“Those cases can be prosecuted as felony charges and they can end up in the juvenile court,” Lowe added.
But, Lowe said, her office uses court as a “last resort when the most significant of violations occur,” and noted that they often use identity-counseling and rehabilitation practices early on.
“The person who is charged doesn’t get thrown in front of the court and we say ‘You’re done,’ we try to see what’s behind the need to harass somebody else, or we try to see what’s behind the need to have this threat to somebody else,” Lowe added.
Albemarle Detective Mike Wells said shared images can live a long life on the internet, noting that he’s currently working a case that had an image from 1987.
Additionally, Wells said, a sexting incident can send a family into crisis.
“Quite frankly a lot of the parents feel betrayed by their children,” Wells said. “The parents are in crisis because they’re like ‘Where did I go wrong?’”
“So there’s a lot of finger pointing…where there probably needs to be services for both the parents and the child,” Wells added.
Albemarle Schools Assistant Superintendent Matt Haas said the schools are communicating one clear message.
“For students who happen to be in receipt of one of these images, we expect them to delete it,” Haas said. “That’s the first step because you’re helping the victim by not moving it forward, and you’re also protecting yourself.”
But Haas said that it isn’t as simple as telling students to stop. The larger issue, Haas said, is teaching young people how to use social media appropriately.
“This in particular is not a behavior that’s caused by social media, but it’s certainly accelerated by it,” Haas said. “And our work in this area is much more around our lifelong learner standards, and working with students to develop the whole child, and giving them what they need in terms of skills to be a good citizen.”
One way the schools plan to do this is to have their school resource officers talk with the students before incidents occur.
“One of the key resources that a resource officer can provide to students is to discuss the legal ramifications of these kinds of behaviors,” Haas said, noting that the officers’ experience investigating these types of crimes provide instant credibility.
Safe Schools/Healthy Students Project Director June Jenkins stressed the importance of parents talking about sexting with their children.
“We do a lot of research and data collection through Safe Schools, and one of the things we have found over and over in all the risky behaviors we look at, is that parents are the greatest influence in the decisions that their children make,” Jenkins said.
But Jenkins also said that it’s not just talking to our children, it’s how we talk to them.
“The best and most proactive conversations that we can have are what we call those teachable moments,” Jenkins said. “It’s when we can have a calm sense of being that we can actually have really good and heartfelt conversations with our children.”
Carol Fox, Director of the Community Public Charter School, one of two charter schools in Albemarle, said sexting not only hurts students emotionally, but can also disrupt learning.
“When this occurs, the student who is central…is so distracted from their learning,” Fox said, “but it also involves a lot of people investigating, working with the students, supporting the students.”
“How can you focus on learning?” Fox added. “Plus, if it’s sent to other people, all of those other people are talking about it…and so it becomes distracting then to even the outsiders.”
To prevent sexting, Wells said, parents must set rules for their child’s use of a device.
“The easiest way to do that is at eight o’clock at night, nine o’clock at night, whatever you decide” Wells said, “you take those devices and you charge them in a central location that you have control over.”
Aylor said it’s important to know what apps your child is using, to know their passwords, and to talk honestly with them about why internet safety is a concern.
Haas is hopeful that the community’s effort will help curb the problem.
“The intent of our working together on this is to get the word out,” Haas said, “because we know that when we do that, when we work as partners in the community and help students find out what’s expected of them, then they respond to it.”