- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ward and June Cleaver wouldn’t begin to comprehend the latest additions to student codes of conduct.

Don’t chew gum? Sure. Don’t fall asleep in class? Goes without saying. Banning “The Beav” from sending nude pictures of Wally’s girlfriend, Mary Ellen Rogers, to classmates via cellphone? Oh, my.

Times have changed since the ‘50s and ‘60s idyllic television sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” and perhaps no one knows that better than officials in school districts across the country. As district officials get ready for the coming school year, their planning includes measures to combat “sexting,” the provocative teen practice of sending racy photographs and video to friends and classmates via their cell phones.

The Houston Independent School District, the nation’s seventh largest school system, last week voted to add a ban on sexting to its student code of conduct. The district of 200,000 students became one of the first large urban districts to attempt to curtail explicit and permissive attempts at cyber-flirting.

Houston schools created the sexting rule because of concern from principals, and it will be in place when students return to classes later this summer. The possible punishments for students caught sexting range from a mandatory conference with a parent and administrator, to suspension for up to three days, to placement in an alternative education program, spokesman Norm Uhl said.

The Houston ISD code bans “using a cell phone or other personal communication device to send text or e-mail messages or possessing text or e-mail messages containing images reasonably interpreted as indecent or sexually suggestive while at school or at a school-related function.”

“In addition to any disciplinary action,” the policy reads, “phones will be confiscated and students should be aware that any images suspected to violate criminal laws will be referred to law enforcement authorities.”

In Bradenton, Fla., the Manatee County School Board implemented a similar sexting ban, noting in its student code that pupils can be suspended or expelled if they “post, send or forward to anyone else a nude or sexually revealing photo of a student person through the Internet or text message, or if you show such photos to other people.”

The district also warned: “You may be subject to arrest for violation of child pornography laws if the student in the photo is a minor.” A conviction in Florida also could mean a student would have to register as a sex offender.

Other school districts, rather than issuing bans, are working on programs to educate students on the dangers.

In Miami-Dade schools, district officials are developing one of the most comprehensive plans in the nation. Focused on prevention, they are shaping a policy that includes students, families, community members, state and local government and law enforcement. They hope to have a broad-scale plan for their district ready for a review by the school board by September.

Deborah Montilla, Miami-Dade’s district director at the division of student services, said that students must understand that a youthful moment of indiscretion eventually could wreck their lives as photos meant to be private are shared with strangers in cyberspace - possibly for years.

“In our curriculum, we want them not only to understand that those images are forever,” Ms. Mantilla said. “They think they are not, but they can be distributed to anybody, anywhere, forever.

“This may impact a student’s ability to get a job, join the military, go to college. It could destroy a current or any future relationship that they might have. It leads to risky behavior and sex crimes.”

School district officials in the D.C. area who returned calls for this article say sexting doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for them.

Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville has a Web site entirely devoted to cyber-safety, which links students, teachers and parents to online resources for cyber-bullying. The site does not specifically address sexting, but it does cite a ban on the use of electronic devices during the school day.

“Teachers are aware and looking for that sort of thing, but we feel providing information and letting kids know the issues is the best defense we have,” district spokeswoman Kate Harrison said.

Critics of school sexting bans say it will be difficult, if not impossible, for a district to enforce a practice that also occurs away from school grounds. School officials who are drafting policies say they won’t be monitoring student texting but likely will intervene only if such a problem is brought to their attention.

Some districts have instituted bans on cell phones during school hours, although that too has been difficult to enforce. Students seem to find a way around rules, Ms. Harrison said.

“You can put a BlackBerry under a desk and text away,” she pointed out. “It’s hard to be the policeman for everything kids might do that’s harmful.”

In Arlington County Public Schools, sexting is a community issue, not a school prohibition. Meg Tuccillo, assistant superintendent for administrative services, said their approach includes home and school components - both needing to work together to be successful.

“If this was disrupting our schools, we would certainly act,” Ms. Tuccillo said. “But we need to realize that school is a portion of a youngster’s day and things could be happening at night just as easily. So, as teachers and parents we all need to be aware of monitoring our youngsters.”

The district has had workshops for parents, teachers and students about the use of technology in hopes of educating others about the potential dangers that come with sharing personal information with others.

Even as lawmakers in several states have worked to lessen the severity of regulations that make sending pornographic photos online by minors a felony, school districts often must deal with the fallout of sexting. Studies show that it continues to grow among teens. A 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 11 percent of girls ages 13 to 16 have texted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves to their pals or a Web site.

In New Jersey, state Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt, a Democrat from Cherry Hill, introduced a package of legislation aimed at ending sexting, noting the long-term damage it can inflict on a person. Under her bill, juveniles who send explicit photographs on their cell phones would not be prosecuted criminally. It would require schools and cell phone retailers to create education programs that warn youths about the damaging potential of sexting.

In March, a New Jersey teenager was charged with felony child pornography distribution after she posted about 30 photos of herself on the social-networking site MySpace. The charges eventually were reduced to probation and the girl was ordered to enter counseling.

“Kids may be kids, but they can be forced to grow up in a hurry when an explicit photograph meant only for one person gets forwarded and reforwarded throughout their school,” Ms. Lampitt said in a statement.

“Young people, especially teen girls, need to understand that sending inappropriate pictures is not only potentially illegal, but can leave an indelible mark on them socially and educationally.”

Kristi Jourdan contributed to this report.

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