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Another teen sexting scandal. Another set of questions about what schools should do.

Are sexting scandals the responsibility of schools?

Why do we hold schools accountable when teens send one another nude or semi-nude photos via iPhones bought for them by their parents who likely also pay the monthly bills?

It’s not because kids attend X or O high school that they send nude photos. It’s because they’re sexually curious teenagers who have technology that makes both taking photos and sending them a snap. And they are growing up in a culture where celebrities are exalted for sexy selfies and where nudity is no longer taboo.

The only people who have immediate control over the sending of these photos are the owners of the phones – the parents. They can seize the phones and close the accounts. They can also teach their kids that taking naked selfies and sending them to friends is a terrible decision that will likely end badly.

I don’t understand why schools are held responsible when sexting occurs.

Consider the latest news that more than 100 teens exchanged nude photos in Cañon City, Colorado. The focus of the story is not the town where the kids live but the school they attend. Reporters are quoting the principal and the superintendent about what they are going to do. When parents are quoted, it's to question why the school didn’t detect and stop the sexting sooner.

As The New York Times reported:

The revelation has left parents outraged, administrators searching for missed clues, and the police and the district attorney’s office debating whether to file child pornography charges — including felony charges — against some of the participants.

George Welsh, the superintendent of the Cañon City school system, said students at Cañon City High School had been circulating 300 to 400 nude photographs, including images of “certainly over 100 different kids,” on their cellphones. “This is a lot of kids involved,” he said, adding that the children in the pictures were believed to be students at the high school as well as eighth graders from the middle school.

The Tmes concludes its long piece with a quote from an expert:

Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of a new book, “Sexting Panic,” contends that schools need to find new ways to talk to students about the issue. Rather than just demanding that students abstain from sending risqué images, she said, educators should aim for open conversations that involve guidance in “safer sexting” with trusted partners. Teachers and school officials “think they’re protecting people from harm,” Professor Hasinoff said. “But we know it doesn’t work.”

I understand why people want schools to address sexting. Schools have a captive audience in their students. Schools represent an efficient way to reach a lot of kids at once, which is why we continue to broaden what we expect schools to teach beyond math, science and reading.

As an editorial writer, I was struck by how many advocates would meet with the AJC editorial board to explain their need to reach kids with their important warning/message/campaign. It might have been about smoking, healthy eating, civics education, driver's ed, sexually transmitted diseases  or teen pregnancy. All the advocates had the same proposal: Compel schools to assume the responsibility to communicate the information to students.

So, now we have added sexting to the list of social concerns we want schools to address, monitor and prevent?

I have two teens. If they were sending or getting inappropriate photos, I would call the parents of the other kids involved. I would call the police if the photos crossed a legal line. I would confiscate their phones.

But I would not call the principal of their high school. This is not her responsibility. She didn't give my kids and their friends smartphones. She's not paying a monthly ransom for them to keep and use the phones. 

Can someone explain why so many people believe schools should be held responsible for sexting? Is there a reason to demand schools act when sexting occurs rather than parents?




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.