News broke yesterday about a new, supposed zero tolerance policy on sexting in a New Jersey school district. The media covered the story and the public has responded with varying amounts of finger wagging and head scratching.
In the story, Superintendent Dr. Walter Uszenski sent an alarming letter to high school parents in Brick New Jersey. The gist of the letter:
“[there have been] several recent reports highlighting a trend where children have been creating and sending real or simulated sexual acts and photos of naked or semi-naked persons from their cell phones and computers, as well as social media apps, such as Instagram or Snap Chat… “It has come to our attention that some of our Brick Township High School students may be engaging in this improper behavior. This matter is a serious issue that demands a prompt and appropriate response. School authorities are working in conjunction with the Brick Township Police Department to help educate the community about the legal and psychosocial implications of this activity.”
Parents were given until 7:00 a.m. Tuesday (yesterday) to ensure that any inappropriate pictures or videos were deleted from student phones and electronics before coming to school. If such pictures and videos were found, students could be expelled.
As is often the case in stories such as this one, the knee jerk public opinion can be gleaned from the comments below the story. From the article at NJ.com:
“Once again here is a school playing the parental figure.”
“And it’s the school’s job to monitor these kid’s phones why? (I’m not supporting what the kids are doing, just wondering why it is the school’s place to monitor kids’ phones. Don’t schools and teachers have enough to do? If they say no, then they’re not doing something right I think..)”
We think this situation is misunderstood. In our opinion, the Superintendent in this case is doing the families of the district a big favor.
Put another way, we have no doubt that the Superintendent would rather not know whether students are sexting. This isn’t a zero tolerance policy on sexting; it’s a zero tolerance policy on sexting causing problems in school, and unintended consequences.
Picture a group of teens at school huddled around a phone and ogling pictures, not doing their schoolwork. If there is something causing a disruption in school, the school is within its rights to investigate, and in some cases required to investigate (bullying, threats etc.). If the “violation” looks like it might be child porn, the school is required to involve the police. Once the police are involved, families are helpless to derail the wheels of justice, and child pornography charges and a permanent criminal record are a possibility.
The child pornography laws as they currently exist were written for a totally different set of circumstances – not teen sexting. By giving families fair warning and an opportunity to delete the pictures before they get into the hands of the police, that is unabashedly positive.
Stories such as this one are frequently described as school “spying” or conducting “secret surveillance”. This misses the mark. If they are doing an investigation in response to a compliant or disturbance, it isn’t spying. If they are generally monitoring public internet posts relating to the school or students with safety in mind, again, it’s not spying. We do not believe that schools have the right to look at the contents of student electronics, absent a report or indication that something untoward is going on.
We believe that in every case possible, parents should do the parenting. In cases where the schools must get involved, handing the problem (and solution) back to parents before the police get involved is the best course of action.
By the way, if the Brick parents hadn’t discussed the risks of sexting with their teens before this week, this is the perfect icebreaker.
Get to work, parents.
Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.