Pinelands School Board Intends to Write Policy to Enforce ‘Sexting’ Ban

District Would Become a Pioneer in New Jersey If Successful
By RICK MELLERUP | Jun 26, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Little Egg Harbor — The Pinelands Regional Board of Education will discuss the possibility of creating a board policy on sexting at its annual summer retreat. The lack of a specific sexting policy came to light after media reports of an incident at the end of May involving a Pinelands seventh-grader and a 12-year-old girl.

The seventh-grader was reportedly charged by police after the presence of an explicit video was reported to a vice principal by another student. The vice principal alerted Pinelands Regional Superintendent Melissa McCooley, and the Little Egg Harbor Township Police Department was notified.

At that time McCooley told another media outlet similar incidents had occurred at least once a month in the past school year. But when questioned, she said the other incidents hadn’t involved an arrest, saying there are different levels of sexting.

That’s understandable. The younger the participants, the more worrisome the case. The pictures or videos in a sexting episode can be more or less explicit. The number of times such pictures or videos are reposted via the internet is certainly another factor in determining the seriousness of a particular case.

But New Jersey State law is clear on the issue. Sexting, the sending of nude or sexually explicit or even sexually suggestive photos or videos by electronic means, is considered child pornography when the person(s) portrayed are under the age of 18. That remains the case even if the person(s) involved in the taking, transmission and re-transmission of such photos or videos are minors. These cases are not disorderly persons offenses, New Jersey’s version of other states’ misdemeanors, but indictable offenses, the Garden State’s equivalent of other states’ felonies.

So, why did the May episode result in an arrest while the others didn’t? The reason might be that Pinelands has no specific sexting policy, instead treating such episodes on what board President Susan Ernst called “a case by case basis.”

When asked about a sexting policy, McCooley cited District Policy 2361, “Acceptable Use Of Computer Network/Computers And Resources,” created in 2000 and edited in 2005. That was several years before sexting was recognized as a serious problem in the U.S. It mentions nothing about personal laptops, tablets and cell phones. The word sexting does not appear in the policy.

McCooley also forwarded a section of the Pinelands student handbook titled “Use Of Internet, Network, Phones, And Other Electronic Devices.” It says, “Students will respect the privacy of others and will not post or upload pictures or recording taken of others to the internet nor email pictures or recording to others without the express advance permission of the persons in the photograph or recording.” It, too, didn’t mention the word sexting.

The last line of that section of the student handbook issues an explicit warning to students. “Note: If any infraction is a violation of law, school authorities will notify the appropriate law enforcement agency.” And yet previous sexting episodes hadn’t been reported to the police.

Board members and McCooley will have their work cut out for them while trying to devise such a policy. As it turns out, Pinelands would be a relative pioneer, at least in New Jersey, if it were to develop a sexting policy.

When discussing the issue at the district’s June 19 meeting Ernst said Strauss Esmay Associates, a Toms River law firm that develops templates for school policies that are utilized by districts throughout the state including Pinelands, has not developed a sexting policy.

“There are no policies on sexting,” said Ernst. “None.”

Ernst, board Vice-President Patricia Chambers and McCooley continued to research the issue. Chambers discovered that Jersey City schools have a sexting policy. Sort of.

“However, it’s not really even a policy on sexting. They put sexting under HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying),” said Ernst.

Ernst next brought up a 2019 memorandum of agreement (MOA) approved by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety and the New Jersey Department of Education that specifically addressed the issue. However, she still found it rather muddled.

The MOA stated that “school officials agree to immediately report to law enforcement officials any incident that rises to the level of mandatory report, as outlined in Article 3. In addition, schools are encouraged to consult with law enforcement for any incident that may require outside investigation.”

After the board agreed to address the issue at its retreat, Ernst said, “I think the biggest problem is finding something out there we can at least begin with.”

The penalties for child pornography can be severe. New Jersey legislators, though, realized a difference between adult offenders and teens caught up in today’s cell phone-crazed culture and in 2012 offered judges an alternative to sentencing children under the age of 18. They can be offered “diversion” and ordered to participate in counseling or educational programs as an alternative to criminal prosecution. Note, though, such teens only get one bite at the apple. If they were to continue sexting and were caught they almost assuredly would be prosecuted, and nobody could say they weren’t warned.

Still, many school officials across the country are reluctant to approach police when sexting is discovered – and it is often in schools where episodes come to the attention of teachers and administrators, even if the offending pictures/videos were taken off campus. Kids talk about, giggle over and share sexting videos and photos, and where do they most often meet each other face to face but in school. But superintendents and principals worry they’ll ruin students’ lives and parents beg to keep the matter out of court.

Only a handful of teen sexting cases in New Jersey, therefore, have come to the attention of the media in the past decade when sexting became recognized as a serious problem.

In the summer of 2014 six teenagers in Little Falls were charged with second-degree distribution and fourth-degree possession of child pornography. In May 2015 no less than 19 teens and one adult were arrested after a sexting incident at Cape May’s Lower Cape Regional High School and Richard M. Teitleman Middle School that was investigated by the Lower Township Police Department and the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office.

Clearly, most districts in the state want to sweep sexting under the rug. Pinelands, though, appears to be ready for some housecleaning.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

 

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