SALT LAKE CITY — It's been well publicized, discussed and in a lot of cases prosecuted. Still, the phenomenon of sexting is under scrutiny in the Alpine School District because board members fear students and parents aren't aware of all the legal ramifications.
The topic of sexting came up during a recent school board study session, as board members called on parents, teachers and administrators to make the message clear that there can be legal trouble associated with sexting.
"Technically we treat that the same as we would pornography — just somebody who is distributing pornography," district spokesperson Rhonda Bromley said. "If they're sending something through technological devices, that can actually be a felony."
Bromley said schools are unfortunately dealing more frequently with the problem.
"We need to make sure that students understand how serious it is," Bromley said.
At last Tuesday's board meeting and study session, board member Wendy Hart brought up the multiplying effect of sexting.
If you take five pictures, that's five counts. If you send them to five friends, you now have 25 counts.
–Wendy Hart, board member
"If you take five pictures, that's five counts," Hart explained. "If you send them to five friends, you now have 25 counts."
The board members recently received training on the topic at a statewide conference.
School board chair John Burton recalled a story of an administrator from somewhere else in the country who became embroiled in a criminal investigation simply because he asked a worker to forward him a sexted pic as part of a school investigation. The man, Burton said, was eventually acquitted but only after a lengthy, expensive legal process.
"It really is something we need to be aware of," Burton said.
Local company COURTEducation Online, recently launched a new web-based class to help teenagers and their parents understand the psychological and legal problems associated with sexting.
Dr. Adam Schwebach, president of COURTEducation Online and adolescent behavioral psychologist, said the class was designed to help educate teenagers and their parents about the social and legal consequences of sexting.
"The primary goal for the program is to help educate teens on safe cell phone practices," Schwebach said. "Oftentimes, teenagers don't really realize some of the things that they may be sending or even receiving through their cell phones.
"We really want to help them understand that there are potential risks with data that they might send through a cell phone or a text message that could potentially be illegal or could cause a lot of social consequences — maybe even leading to cyber bullying or teasing or even being ostracized by their peers," Schwebach added. "Our main goal with the teenagers is to try and help them be more responsible and to think about the data that they're transmitting through a cell phone so they don't get entangled in some type of problem that's going to be potentially harmful to them."
Schwebach said the class is also beneficial for the parents because many do not know or understand the potential risks associated with new digital technology.
"There really are risks to cell phones," Schwebach stressed. "A lot of parents don't realize that sexting is illegal — it's illegal in the state of Utah and many other states across the country."
We really don't know what happens to those images. We really don't know if that data is stored somewhere else. We really want teens to appreciate the fact that the information they send digitally is never private and never safe no matter how you're sending it, whether it's through a text message or Skype or social media.
–Dr. Adam Schwebach
The online sexting diversion class is not intended to be a replacement for the boundaries set by parents, but is meant to pre-emptively educate teenagers or first time sexting offenders about the dangers of digital media.
"Kids are exposed to lots of digital technology and media on a daily basis," Schwebach said. "Because of the way technology has changed so rapidly, there are potential pitfalls and dangers that we may not foresee happening. The best thing for parents to do is have an open communication with their children and to make sure they closely monitor what their kids are doing with digital technology, especially mobile technology."
Schwebach said the course addresses advances in technology, including apps for the phone that can hide or delete sent images and messages. Apps like Snapchat have recently come under fire for the ability to send images to another user and then have them quickly erased from the app once viewed.
"We really don't know what happens to those images," Schwebach said. "We really don't know if that data is stored somewhere else. We really want teens to appreciate the fact that the information they send digitally is never private and never safe no matter how you're sending it, whether it's through a text message or Skype or social media."