The New York Times is running a story that raises important questions about school rights and growing practice of "sexting" among kids. Sexting, of course, involves sending nude or provocative pictures via cell phones and has been the subject of a number of high-profile cases recently. Discoveries of sexting have led to everything from suspension from school to child pornography charges.
In this case, however, the students involved felt the prosecutor went too far. According to the article,
The picture that investigators from the office of District Attorney George P. Skumanick of Wyoming County had was taken two years earlier at a slumber party. It showed Marissa [one of the girls accused] and a friend from the waist up. Both were wearing bras.
For this picture, the prosecutor threatened the girl with "filing a charge of sexual abuse of a minor against both girls. [He told them that, ] if convicted, they could serve time in prison and would probably have to register as sex offenders." Perhaps not surprisingly, the parents of the two girls in the picture and one other girl accused of similar offenses (13 boys and four girls were accused by the same prosecutor) sued to prevent the district attorney from filing criminal charges.
This is where the law is struggling to keep up with quickly changing use of technology among kids. What constitutes poor judgment and what actually steps into the realm of sex crimes? Again, quoting the Times article,
“Prosecutors should not be using a nuclear-weapon-type charge like child pornography against kids who have no criminal intent and are merely doing stupid things,” said Witold J. Walczak, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represents the families.
On the other hand, obviously this isn't an appropriate use of cell phones, even at the fairly innocent level identified for the two girls above (note that they were actually 13 at the time the pictures were taken). The DA in the case proposed a 10 hour class "dealing with pornography and sexual violence" in exchange for not filing charges."
Is this something that should be left to parents and kids to sort out? Or should law enforcement become involved? Alternatively, is this more of a public health concern? In general, I'm inclined to think it's the latter. Too many kids are incredibly cavalier about sexting, along with the sorts of photos and comments they post on social networking sites. Educational programs aimed at safety in the digital age have as much merit as drug and alcohol awareness programs, sex education, and even fire safety. Obviously we shouldn't be teaching stop-drop-and-roll at the same time we teach don't-send-naked-pictures-of-yourself-to-your-significant-other, but both have a place in education.