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Sexting: As another scandal emerges, here’s what schools are teaching

New school curriculum on sexting in school can help parents talk to their own children about the issue. Justin S. Campbell/Flickr
New school curriculum on sexting in school can help parents talk to their own children about the issue. Justin S. Campbell/Flickr

By J.R. Williams
jrw@familysignal.com
Curriculum can help parents talk to their children about issue sweeping the country

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, last week, authorities filed a search warrant against a 17-year-old pupil at Ocean Lakes High School, a local television station reported. Officials suspected the boy of collecting nude photos of his peers and distributing them — and hiding them on his phone with an app disguised as a calculator.

This isn’t the first time so-called “vault apps” have been the focus of a school sexting investigation. In Canon City, Colorado, the apps were used in a sexting ring that reportedly included hundreds of nude photos of students there.

While the investigation is ongoing and the boy hasn’t been arrested, the allegations alarmed students and parents at Ocean Lakes. “Girls shouldn’t be doing it anyways, and guys didn’t have the right to send it off to other people,” Lydia Williams, a senior at the school, told the TV station.

While sexting scandals are becoming more common across the U.S., many schools are not resting on their laurels: Communities are responding by introducing curriculum aimed at raising awareness among students. The largest school division in the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District, put the issue squarely in the spotlight last fall by announcing an anti-sexting campaign to be taught in middle and high schools across the city.

“The bottom line, I think, is there is no way we are going to arrest and prosecute ourselves out of the issue of sexting,” said Tracy Webb, deputy city attorney in Los Angeles, in a news release announcing the city’s program. “The only way we’re going to stem the tide, get through to the kids and send the message is to partner.”

So what do the lessons look like? The materials are comprehensive, and can help parents who might be worried that their children are involved.

“I believe a lot of teenagers do it, and they don’t know the consequences,” said Milady Maldonado, a student in Los Angeles. “They should know that it can affect them in the long run.”

Los Angeles educators have adopted a curriculum provided by Common Sense Education for their campaign, called “Now Matters Later.” For pupils grades six through eight, the lesson plans don’t mention the word sexting at all, although students may already be familiar with the word or taught it at the teacher’s discretion. Although peer-to-peer relationships are covered, the focus is more on detecting threats from strangers, such as in a chat room.

The middle-schoolers are taught to evaluate the risk of an online relationship. They learn words such as “inappropriate,” “risky,” “pitfall” and “harass” in the context of their digital lives. They’re taught to ask themselves questions: “Have I felt pressured by this person to do anything?” “Has this person flirted with me, or asked me about anything sexual?” “Has this person asked me about anything private?”

Class discussions are centered on the benefits and dangers of online relationships. Teachers are instructed to ask students what situations would prompt a “gut feeling” that they might be at risk. And rules are outlined for what’s not appropriate on the Internet.

“Don’t reply to any questions that make you uncomfortable,” a lesson states. “Tell a friend or trusted adult when someone bothers you online. Avoid flirting or using sexual language online, especially with people you and your friends to not know in person; never plan a face-to-face meeting with someone you met online without taking along a parent or guardian.”

As you might expect, high-schoolers are introduced to the more advanced concept centered on romantic relationships. “Self-disclosure” and “reciprocate” are part of the vocabulary words learned, and the word sexting is defined. The actions and consequences are clearly defined: A girl sends a nude photo to her boyfriend, who sends it to other people, which causes the girl to feel “embarrassed, humiliated and betrayed.”

Students are told that anything they send someone else can be shared with others in myriad ways, even if they believe the recipient wouldn’t do so. Critically, students are asked to imagine ways in which they or their peers would understand these consequences but ignore them.

While these resources will help combat the problem, there’s clearly work to be done to change the perception among students in schools where sexting is commonplace.

“I didn’t take it as much because it kind of happens often,” Viviana Martin Del Campo, a 16-year old student at Venice High School, told the Los Angeles Times after seeing boys laughing at a nude photo at school. “Students shouldn’t be criminalized for it.”

Sexting pictures of minors, of course, is illegal, and the photo Viviana saw the boys laughing at spurred the arrest of 15 boys, the Times reported.

“I believe a lot of teenagers do it, and they don’t know the consequences,” said Milady Maldonado, a student in Los Angeles, said as the school division announced their anti-sexting curriculum. “They should know that it can affect them in the long run.”


J.R. Williams
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