Sexting and Student Discipline: Administrators Need to Understand This Activity and Develop Appropriate Policies

By O'Donovan, Eamonn | District Administration, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Sexting and Student Discipline: Administrators Need to Understand This Activity and Develop Appropriate Policies


O'Donovan, Eamonn, District Administration


WHILE INVESTIGATING A TIP that a student had a picture of another, partially nude, female student on his cell phone, Ting-Yei Oei, assistant principal at Freedom High School in Loudoun County, Va., asked the student to e-mail the picture to his own cell phone. This seemingly tech-savvy way to preserve physical evidence had devastating consequences for Oei. The incident led to angry accusations from a parent, an investigation by police, and Oei's being charged with "failure to report child abuse" and felony possession of child pornography. Oei was fully exonerated, but only after incredible stress and expense to clear his name.

Oei's story, reported in the January/February 2010 issue of NEA Today, should serve as a cautionary tale for administrators who get caught between the need to keep an orderly campus and an expectation from some quarters to police what students say on their cell phones. The law is unclear on how schools can act regarding sexual content transmitted by cell phones or other electronic media at school, at school-sponsored activities, or outside of school. In many cases, laws are contradictory and issues still have to be played out in the courts for clarity to emerge. When students send nude pictures of their friends to each other, it opens up many troubling questions. Is this merely kids having fun but misinterpreting boundaries? Is it sexting? If friendships end and feelings get hurt, can this behavior be considered cyberbullying? Child pornography?

Any administrator at the secondary level with a pulse on the life of his or her campus will recognize the important role played by technology in the lives of students. Technology is a part of student life in ways hard to understand for those who grew up before the Internet boom. It's the Wild West out there in cell phone land, and student behavior mirrors the anything-goes ethos of the Internet. If you allow cell phones on campus, you will have students in possession of cell phones with sexually oriented messages, pictures, videos and applications. Your students are sending these messages during class, at lunch, during sports events and school-sponsored activities, and after school.

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Sexting: How Common Is it?

Sexting is commonly defined as the sharing of sexually explicit photos, videos, email, text and chat by cell phone or online. The Associated Press reported in December 2009 that more than one-in-four teenagers have "sexted" in some form. According to the Associated Press-MTV poll, 30 percent of all respondents said they had been involved in sexting. Seventeen percent of respondents 14 to 24 years old said that somebody had sent them nude pictures or videos of themselves. Ten percent said they had sent nude pictures of themselves by phone or online.

Another poll, conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl in 2008 found that 21 percent of teen girls and 18 percent of teen boys have sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves. The poll found that suggestive text (e-mail, text message, instant message) is more prevalent among teens and young people than suggestive images, with 39 percent of respondents saying they had sent it and 48 percent saying they had received it.

It is important to take these survey results with a pinch of salt, as The Wall Street Journal advised in April 2009 ("Which Is Epidemic--Sexting or Worrying about It?"). In sampling online users, pollsters may be tapping into the very tech-cowboys and cowgirls who are most likely to engage in risky online behavior. Conversely, traditional telephone surveys may miss the teens most likely to avoid phone surveys in favor of online questionnaires. Regardless of the fuzzy math and poll numbers, common sense would lead one to believe that sexting is a problem even if we can't accurately quantify it yet.

What Can Administrators Do?

Cell phones are ubiquitous on campus, and the anytime anywhere nature of teenage communications means that students see no separation between life inside and outside of school, at least when it comes to activities such as texting. …

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