Sexting heats up policy debate in some Washington school districts

Sexting, the sending of provocative or nude photos via text message, is becoming more common among youth.

According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20 percent of teens have engaged in sexting. There are no state laws that currently prevent sexting. However, there are legal consequences for sharing those photos. Sending, receiving or storing explicit images of minors on a cell phone is a felony in the United States.

Across the country, students have faced criminal charges, ranging from obscenity to child pornography.

Schools battle sexting

The issue has been brought to a head in local school districts.

In a case last year in Bothell's Northshore School District, two cheerleaders took and sent photos of themselves, in which one girl was topless and the other was nude. The photos made their way anonymously to a school administrator in the form of printed copies, and both girls were suspended from the cheer squad - the first for 30 days, and the second for a year. The administrator who received the photos showed one other official, then turned the photos over to police, according to the Bothell Reporter.

An attorney for the two girls alleged that among other things, the district violated both girls’ right to due process by sharing the pictures with school officials. Attorney Matthew King said the photos should have been turned over to police the minute they came to light.

According to the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA), the case was settled in exchange for a waiver of costs. The topic appeared in the WSSDA newsletter, which explained to school districts how to use existing laws to get a handle on the sexting situation.

That's what Whidbey Island's Oak Harbor School District did. On Monday, the district expanded a policy related to locker and bag searches to include cell phones. The new policy states: “By bringing a cell phone and other electronic devices to school or school sponsored events, the student and parents consent to the search of the device when school officials have a reasonable suspicion that such a search will reveal a violation of school rules.”

Federal Way

There aren't any plans to bring a new policy like Oak Harbor's to Federal Way, said school board president Tony Moore.

"If that issue comes up, it will be discussed and voted on," Moore said.

However, Moore said that going the same route as Oak Harbor might be a bit too far.

"It seems rather intrusive," Moore said. "I would be concerned about the rights of students. Our job is to educate, not to micromanage...It's a slippery slope that I am not particularly comfortable with. That's just my gut."

Angela Griffin, school board vice president, said that sexting wasn't something the board has had to deal with yet. Some of the issues that would need to be examined include the legality of such a policy, and whether this was a school issue or a police issue.

Currently in the Federal Way School District, each school level has rules for cell phones and electronics. In the elementary level, personal electronic devices are banned during the school day. If students have a cell phone, it must remain out of sight and turned off during the day, or it will be confiscated, and a parent or guardian can pick it up at the end of the day.

In the middle schools, students are strongly encouraged not to have cell phones or electronic devices, but they are not banned because the district deems it a parent's safety decision. But the phones may not be in sight during school hours unless it's an emergency. Students who violate this policy can lose the privilege of bringing a device to campus.

High school rules are similar to the middle school rules, with the exception that high schoolers can use their phones during lunchtime in certain areas, including the cafeteria.

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