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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Susquenita, PA, sexting case: A parent's view

The day after the above blog post that mentioned the Susquenita sexting case, I heard from the father of one of the eight high school students involved. I'll probably post more perspectives in future, but I'm starting with this one, this week, because 1) I think the perspective of a father – of a teen whose involvement sounds pretty typical of students caught up in such incidents – may be useful to other parents and 2) this is the first case I've seen in the news where school officials are under investigation by a prosecutor for the way they handled the case.

"I am one of the parents involved in this issue," wrote this father of a then-16-year-old. When school administrative staff ["head principal, two assistants, director of curriculum and the possibility of more," he later told me] started their investigation the morning of Sept. 24, 2009, they knew then that they were dealing with students and nude pictures, but they continued this [investigation] all day long before contacting parents and police, even passing these phones around to other staff.... My son was interrogated by the head principal along with the director of curriculum. They called my son a sex offender, told him he would go to prison, and that he would be placed on Megan's [sex offender] list. Then he was contained in the nurse's office for over two hours. Other students were treated basically the same....

"My son along with [seven] other students [three girls and four boys] admitted they had a picture or pictures on their phones, etc. They told school staff who was in the pictures, etc., [but] the staff still went through [the phones].... The principal told us he didn't want to talk to the girl about this issue, saying 'he felt uncomfortable', though he didn't mind viewing her pictures and others' as well." [By the sound of it, the police called in at the end of the school day were the best part of this experience, reportedly respectful and clear about the students' rights and what was and wasn't lawful about the school's investigation – for example, a state trooper told the dad that he would need signed parental consent or a warrant signed by a judge to go through students' cell phones. The law differs from state to state, but that's something parents should ask if they're ever in this position: Do school officials have the legal right to search their children's phones without a warrant on school premises?]

"I have been fighting this battle for these kids since it happened on Sept. 24th," the dad continued. "The district attorney offered a consent decree to all the students, involving probation, fines, and a few classes, and the felony charges were to be expunged when this [process] is completed. However, they still pursued the felony charges [he told me later that it's still not clear the students' records will be completely expunged].... These kids were charged with felonies from a law [meant] to protect minors from adult predators. Pennsylvania doesn't have a teen sexting law, although one is expected to pass soon. There needs to be a change to stop this destruction, not to mention the wrongdoing of the school. My question is, did any adult in this situation, from school to legal system, ever step back to have the best interest of these students at heart? No, they labeled and smeared these kids and families."

When I asked him if there was any malice or bullying involved among the students, he said, "These kids did this willingly, they are friends. Don't get me wrong, I don't condone this, it was stupid, but they were basically keeping this private amongst themselves, meaning no harm.... I couldn't even imagine," he wrote, "being wrongfully charged with the worst type of charge anybody could face: sexual abuse of minors."

All told, these students have experienced public humiliation, arrest (fingerprinting, mug shots, etc.), expulsion hearings before the school board, prosecution as adults, probation, fines, classes, and – as of this writing – the possibility of felony convictions remaining on their records, on top of whatever the students and families have dealt with privately over the past six months. Whatever happened at school last September 24, school officials do not seem to have been a support to them.

Meanwhile, 40 students involved in a sexting incident a week later in the next county over, at Chambersburg High School (involving a different prosecutor), did not receive felony charges (see here and here for background).

"The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has pushed legislation that would make sexting a second-degree misdemeanor. If convicted of a felony related to sexting, children can now be forced to register as sex offenders," the Harrisburg Patriot News reported. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, "In 2009, lawmakers in at least 11 states introduced legislation aimed at 'sexting'." In some of those states, that legislation is aimed at deterring and applying appropriate penalties to teens who engage in sexting, NCSL reports. Let's hope the Pennsylvania legislature passes a teen sexting law soon and that it's retroactive.

Related links

  • My sexting primer for parents
  • The best approach for schools to take (see "The goal of any incident investigation" at the bottom)
  • "Sexting: New study & the 'Truth or Dare' scenario"

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    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    This article was very educational and very scary, I have younger children and was doing some research when I came across this article. Wouldn't it be easier for the high schools and the local law enforcement agency (perhaps they have a task force) to call an assembly and explain how sexting is illegal and how much trouble they can get into, how they can destroy their future and their families with a single misstep? I know this is obvious to everyone, but I don't hear anyone saying it, I don't think these kids are thinking about the law they're breaking. They know its morally wrong because they're keeping it to themselves. Is anyone educating them on the consequences rather than leaving them to their own devices and then prosecuting them as adults after the fact? Just a question.

    6:05 AM  
    Blogger Anne said...

    A good question, Anonymous. I think educating students is definitely a much better alternative, and some district attorneys and state attorneys general are taking the educational rather than prosecutorial route, thank goodness. I know of a DA in Massachusetts whose office does talk to students in school assemblies about sexting, but I don't know how widespread this is. Schools are educating their students too, but not in a widespread way yet, I don't think. I haven't seen any stories of school boards or state education depts. doing district- or state-wide education programs no the subject, probably because many education officials are trying to figure out how sexting by minors is handled in their jurisdictions.

    Somehow laws need to catch up with how youth use technology. State law has in Vermont, for example, where sexting by minors has been decriminalized. There's a lot of disagreement on this, though - some legal scholars feel prosecution should not be taken off the table because some minors have engaged in sexting-related crimes (see my later post mentioning such as case in Wisconsin), and the penalty should just be lowered for minors (e.g., misdemeanor instead of felony), which is what has happened in some states. But apparently only about a dozen states have even adjusted their laws where sexting's concerned, and not all for the better, from a parent's perspective.

    1:20 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Susquenita lacks professionalism. Period. The district needs to clean house and get better administration, who know how to handle situations properly and treat staff and students with respect. The perverted admininstration should be placed on Megans Law list because they chose to look at it. I hope when it is all said and done that the kids can be kids, and the admin suffers the consequences for lack of control and not handling the situation correctly. Ive heard how they treat students and how they treat teachers, its time to get rid of them.

    9:43 PM  

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