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Police, schools take aim at student ‘sexting’

RELATED: See more crime news from the Fredericksburg region

It’s no secret that the days of note-passing in school have been replaced by text messaging and social media such as Instagram.

But the smartphone age also has pitfalls and risks, some of which can lead to serious ramifications in schools.

Two cases since April in the Fredericksburg region have brought to light, again, the issue of teen and preteen “sexting.”

In one case, hundreds of high schoolers in Louisa and surrounding counties were caught up in a sexting case in which nude and seminude photographs and videos of girls were posted to an Instagram account that was shared by a ring of teens.

Another case involved students at a Stafford County middle school the Sheriff’s Office does not want to identify. In that case, nude photos were passed around on smartphones, many of which were confiscated by investigators.

No criminal charges have been filed in either case, but the investigations are continuing. Some of the students involved in the Stafford incidents were suspended.

“Yes, there have been issues in our schools,” said Stafford schools spokeswoman Valerie Cottongim. “There have been issues in all of our schools.”

Current school-year statistics are not available, but in the 2011–12 school year, Stafford schools accounted for 707 of the region’s 851 cellphone-related disciplinary actions, according to the Virginia Department of Education figures. Those cases also include violations of school cellphone policies and other infractions less serious than sexting.

The county’s School Board last week talked about updating the code of conduct rules to better deal with sexting. Cottongim said the changes would be more in line with the legal definition of pornography.

The board may also change the rules for cellphone use in schools. Stafford middle and high schools allow students to use smartphones and tablets for educational purposes.

Stafford Sheriff’s Detective Darryl Wells, a retired FBI agent who focused on cybercrimes, said there appears to be a spike this year in juvenile sexting cases.

He said the Sheriff’s Office has confiscated 105 cellphones this year related to all manner of crime, including homicides, drugs and burglaries. But, he said, 70 percent of the phones confiscated are related to sexting cases, involving children and adults.

The Sheriff’s Office has handled 16 sexting cases involving juveniles so far this year.

Wells and Sheriff’s Office spokesman Bill Kennedy said juvenile sexting is an issue all over the nation.

Spotsylvania County also has seen a spike in sexting cases this year. Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Pearce didn’t have specific numbers, but said the department has handled about seven sexting cases involving grade school students this year.

In some cases, misdemeanor charges were filed, Pearce said.

“It’s very common right now,” he said. “We’ve seen a real upsurge in investigations in the past year.”

EDUCATING CHILDREN

Texting and other social media apps such as Instagram, which allow users to easily share photographs, are easier formats for nervous or shy teens and preteens to talk about dating and sex. And some of them say they shouldn’t be ashamed to share images of their bodies.

That’s why authorities are taking more of an educational approach, primarily because many of the children involved have no idea what they are doing can be a crime.

Stafford started an education program after a 2009 sexting case at Brooke Point High School. The problem seemed to be under control, but it has become more of an issue in the last two years.

Kennedy said deputies started making more visits to middle schools last year to talk about sexting. He and others hope they can teach students about the potential impacts of sharing nude pictures.

They say the children don’t realize that those texted pictures can end up online, and images sent on apps such as Instagram, Vine and Snapchat do end up online. And once they’re on the Internet, they stay there forever.

Officials say the issue is difficult to keep up with because the younger generation is so technologically savvy. Wells said officers often learn new tricks from the children.

Cottongim agreed.

“It is amazing how quickly it changes on a dime,” Cottongim said of the technology and new ways for the children to communicate with their smartphones. “You can’t keep up with it.”

PAYING A PRICE

While the children may be tech savvy, they can pay a steep price if they are caught sending or passing around nude pictures. And the consequences go beyond being suspended from school.

Juveniles involved in sexting cases often are charged with a misdemeanor, but they can face felony or even federal charges.

In Virginia, taking and sending sexually explicit pictures of juveniles is considered manufacturing and/or distribution of child pornography. Those who unwillingly receive nude images will not be charged with a crime.

However, keeping a nude photo of a juvenile sent to your cellphone can lead to a charge of possessing child pornography. But police say you should report receiving such images to have the situation investigated.

A lot of teens don’t think it’s a crime, said Sgt. Carol Burgess, who works in the Stafford Sheriff’s Office juvenile services unit. “It’s a real eye-opener for them,” she said of the legal ramifications.

Cottongim agreed.

“They are very surprised when a deputy walks in the room and says you can’t have this on your phone,” she said.

Being charged with a felony in such cases can keep a student from getting a college loan. It also can land a person on the sex-offender registry, which can be a black mark that follows them for life.

Then, there are the victims, who can suffer psychological problems or become a victim of an even worse crime.

Once an image is sent—even if it’s between a boyfriend or girlfriend or just friends—it can end up anywhere, including online for millions to see.

“That victim may need help for years,” said Pearce.

What’s potentially worse, said Wells, is that sexting also opens the possibility that adult pedophiles can get the images and do with them what they want. It also may help sexual predators find ways to contact children.

Pearce and Wells said adult predators lurk in online teen chat rooms and scour Facebook and other social media networking sites in search of victims.

Kennedy and Pearce said it’s important for parents to be involved and to monitor their children’s use of the phones.

While it’s difficult to keep up with the technology, they say it’s important for parents to keep open the lines of communication with their children.

“We do what we can to help the kids,” said Kennedy. “We need the parents to help, too.”

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

 

TIPS FOR PARENTS

  • Overall, it’s important for parents to maintain open lines of communication with children to prevent sexting or other online problems.
  • Know your child’s passwords for all of their electronic devices.
  • In most cases, parents are the ones paying for the phone, computer, etc., so you can do an electronic audit of those devices. Do so at least once per week.
  • Before buying a device, tell your child what the rules will be.
  • Don’t take away the electronic device as a form of punishment. Oftentimes a teen who loses the privilege of using the cellphone or computer will find an alternate source.
  • Set a specific time each night when all cellphones used by the child are to be turned off and placed in a central spot in the home.
  • Purchase software apps that will report the activity on your child’s cellphone. One point of caution: These apps can be used only to monitor your child’s activities and device. If someone else uses the phone and is unaware of the surveillance app that is being used, it could be a violation of state and of federal wiretap laws.

—Stafford County Sheriff’s Office

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