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Sexting has taken on a whole new meaning

By Brigid Scheffert

As the school year begins, administrators across Vermont will once again focus on student safety. Our Washington West Supervisory Union administrative team spent the better part of a day in August reviewing and revising the safety plans and protocols for our schools. However, this year my thoughts and concerns about keeping our students safe extend far beyond unwanted intruders. In particular, I have been dwelling on the use of social media. For years we have written policies and procedures about acceptable use, developed student contracts and have tried to educate students about the dangers of the internet. Parents do the same. Usually, the focus is one of stranger danger, falsehoods and inappropriate sites.

I am really writing today to reach out to the student body and parent community with a large warning about sexting. Actually, the topic is much larger than sexting in the way most of us define it. Sexting, the sending of naked pictures of oneself to others, usually friends, has taken on a whole new meaning with a huge set of unintended, harmful consequences that can, in just a push of a button, nearly destroy a young person's future career and possibly life.

I am telling this story to our community at large in an effort to be proactive, to help spare other students and to educate everyone about the realities in our own backyard. The story goes like this. Last year, I became aware that a sizable number of Harwood students were involved in sexting on a pretty regular basis over the course of a two-year period. Through investigation by both school officials and law enforcement, it became clear that 20 or so female students had sent very graphic naked pictures of themselves to boyfriends. Now what happened next took on an even more serious and dangerous turn. As many as 30 or so male students started sharing the pictures, trading them, collecting them like baseball cards and offering to buy certain girl's photos. I have no doubt that this whole story goes even deeper, but I can only write about what was actually uncovered.

Students were horrified. Many were completely stunned to find out that the photos existed because, of course, promises were made that they would be destroyed. Vermont has sexting legislation that somewhat differentiates in a legal way this kind of behavior when it is consensual among students of nearly the same age and does not involve sharing the photos. But, when naked pictures of minors are possessed, distributed and sold, the law becomes very black and white. Really good students, making really bad choices naively and impulsively, can find themselves with very serious felony charges. Even if convictions get avoided, college acceptances, scholarships and admission into military academies can go up in smoke, not to mention future employment opportunities. Our students are unaware of the magnitude of what can happen to them, and their lives, by engaging in these behaviors. I do not want to be sitting across another table with a devastated family, with a mother whose eyes are swollen shut from crying and a student whose college and career plan has just been destroyed because of sexting or other stupid, impulsive use of social media.

The Vermont State Police reported to me, that they subpoenaed from Facebook approximately 2,000 pages of texting and sexting messages from Harwood Union students last year. I was shocked not only at what I saw but how extensive the entire case was. I also learned that sexting and the other behaviors I mentioned above are rampant in high schools throughout Vermont. Last February, similar cases were reported in the media in Milton and St. Albans. One deputy state's attorney, when speaking in general of today's teens sharing nude or explicit photos, said it is so prevalent that the special investigative units throughout the state do not have the manpower to investigate everything that gets reported.

At the present time, I am told by law enforcement that the Harwood investigation is completed. Those students involved have been receiving supports throughout the year, including counseling. My understanding is that the HUHS case has been turned over to the Community Justice Center (CJC). We have worked collaboratively with our agency partners to take an educational and restorative justice approach in this matter, issuing school discipline where warranted and avoiding criminal charges. As part of our agreement, the CJC will create an all-school assembly program on the dangers of sexting, along with law enforcement officials, who will present the factual information about the laws.

A number of resources exist within our local communities that can assist and support parents and students. The best way to become fully informed about what is available and to tailor supports to individual needs is to be in contact with the Lisa Lemieux in the HUHS guidance department at (802) 882-1117.

Harwood Union High School will continue to take a comprehensive, proactive educational approach regarding Safety and Social Media. These efforts will be largely the responsibility of the HUHS Coordinated School Health Team, which is overseen directly by a school administrator and consists of three school counselors, the nurse, the Student Assistance Program (SAP) specialist, a health teacher and two students.

In direct response to the Facebook case, this team coordinated mental health services for students/families and a worker to present to the faculty on trauma. The team has also partnered with Stephen McArthur, community outreach coordinator for Circle. He has received a grant to support Harwood in a student directed and created project related to bullying and harassment with a focus on social media. This yearlong project will begin soon. Additionally two students who attended the Hugh O'Brien Youth Leadership Conference over the summer have a proposal to bring Jamie Utt to Harwood; Jamie is a presenter that focuses on bullying and harassment and the students have included in their proposal a means for preparing and following up with the student body.

In addition, Washington County Youth Services at (802) 229-9151 and Yvonne Byrd, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center at (802) 223-9606 are valuable resources. This is not just a Harwood problem. Parents and other adult role models, we need to open up dialogue and keep on talking about the dangers and ramifications of these types of choices with our students. We need another approach other than the court system. Please join our efforts in keeping our students safe by attending future assemblies and evening forums throughout the year, intended to provide proactive supports to this very important social issue of our time. Clearly, it does truly take a community to raise a child.

Scheffert is the superintendent at Washington West Supervisory Union.

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