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Police investigate sexting at Bluestone Middle School
SoVaNow.com / March 12, 2014Mecklenburg County authorities are pondering their next move after seizing two dozen cell phones and other electronic devices from Bluestone Middle School students that contain pornographic photos, including images that appear to have originated with “sexting” by young students.
Mecklenburg Sheriff Bobby Hawkins said his office is working with school officials and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to determine how best to handle the incident. “Arrest is a last resort, but we want to be proactive,” said Hawkins at a press conference Tuesday to discuss the matter.
He added: “Do 11 to 13 year olds really need a phone at school?”
The Sheriff’s Office is not saying whether the pornographic photos were taken on school grounds or transmitted during school hours. Law enforcement officials also are not saying whether any of the devices were issued by the school for educational purposes.
So far, the investigation centers around students at Bluestone Middle School, but as more evidence emerges it potentially could lead elsewhere, Hawkins acknowledged.
Sgt. Jamie King, who along with Investigator Jason Seamans is leading the probe, said he first learned that kids were allegedly “sexting” back in January. Sexting is the transmission of sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone or other electronic device.
King, who serves as the school resource officer, said that because of his interaction with students, two youths approached him outside of school. Their parents had encouraged them to share what they knew about the incident, King continued. Most of the initial pictures were transmitted among students via Facebook and Snapshot, popular social media Internet sites. King added that he believes some of the retransmissions were done innocently — kids sharing the photos with their friends saying, “You’ll never believe what I received,” in King’s description.
Once the investigation began, King and Seamans uncovered at least two additional incidents of sexting using Instagram, and at least one video of an assault involving a second-grade student and a fourth-grade student.
“Most of these kids don’t understand the consequences of their actions,” explained Seamans, who said any child found in possession of adult or child pornography is guilty of a Class 6 felony, which carries a minimum mandatory sentence of five years in prison. It is also a Class 6 felony to take the nude or sexually explicit pictures, alter the pictures in any way, or transmit them to another person.
Responding to parents whose children had their electronic devices seized, Seamans said, “They need to know, by law, we can’t give [the devices] back. If we did, and the pictures are still on the phone, we would be distributing pornography, and that’s a crime.”
Seamans added that, for the most part, parents have been cooperating with the investigation.
Hawkins said, “We don’t want to be like Prince William County where three teenagers were arrested [last week] after posting nude photos of students on Instagram. We want to work with the schools to decide what policy changes [if any] need to be made and what we can do to educate the students, teachers, school administrators, and the parents.” He also stressed the need to address the situation before it balloons into a multi-county problem — citing a similar case in Wake County, N.C. and surrounding counties, where the State Bureau of Investigation is investigating the sharing of nude photos of students on social media sites.
“We need to involve the parents,” said Hawkins.
He and King are asking parents to talk to their children about the dangers of posing for sexually explicit photos or posting them online, and warn students about the consequences. They also encourage parents to download mobile apps and become familiar with the social media sites used by their children — Instagram, Twitter, Kik messenger, Myspace, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Foursquare, and Google+, to name a few.
The next step, according to King, is to establish an annual in-school program to teach students and educators the consequences of posting sexually explicit pictures. It is more than a crime involving pornography, said King. It is also a form of bullying, especially for children suffering from low self-esteem.
If Virginia enacts legislation currently under consideration by the General Assembly, it will become a misdemeanor if an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend posts sexually explicit or intimate pictures after a breakup. The bill, which passed out of the House of Delegates on a 97-2 vote, would make “revenge porn” illegal. Violations of the revenge porn law would be a Class 1 misdemeanor, subject to up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Both Seamans and King agreed there are benefits with allowing students to bring electronic devices to school: “We’re living in a tech age. There are a lot of positives for [the students] to experience. We have to remember there is parental and community responsibility involved,” said King.
Seamans added that having children bring their electronic devices to school can enhance learning and save schools money by not requiring the purchase of computers for every student. Without effective monitoring of devices, however, it’s being shown that the “wrong use overshadows the good,” he said.
“School officials have been very cooperative,” added King, and he expects that the Sheriff’s Office, Commonwealth’s Attorney, and school officials will come together to develop a policy and educational program that addresses the problem.
Already, Seamans and King have reached out to the Virginia Attorney General’s office, which has instituted programs to educate communities about the problems caused by student sexting. Bluestone Middle School students were supposed to have an assembly with the AG staff representatives last Monday, but school was closed due to the snow. No new date has been set for the assembly.
Moving forward, Seamans said, Mecklenburg County schools may have to look into whether the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires the blocking of student-owned electronic devices that access the school’s internet network. CIPA is a federal law that requires K-12 schools and libraries to install computer and internet blocks on electronic devices that prevent access to visual depictions of obscenity, child pornography, or materials that are harmful to minors, if the school purchases telecommunication services and internet access using certain discounts known as e-rates.
Law enforcement’s goal is to take a proactive approach, as much as possible, to stop sexting by students before someone gets hurt or the practice grows out of control: “We are concerned with where this could lead,” said King.
Asked if officers have gotten through to the students who may have been involved in sexting, Seamans replied, “I’m not sure. It depends on the parents and the maturity level of the kids. If the parents take it seriously, so will the kids.”
Police are not identifying any of the students who may be involved, or saying if charges may be forthcoming.
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