A Detroit-area school district is attempting to curb sexting among its students by adopting a policy that subjects their cellphones, laptops and other electronic devices to search if there is “reasonable suspicion” of them emailing, texting or possessing sexually explicit pictures or messages, the Detroit News reports.
Troy School District Board of Education officials say the policy wasn’t prompted by a specific incident, but rather “was just a matter of being proactive,” according to Rich Machesky, the district’s assistant superintendent for secondary instruction. The policy applies to any activity on school grounds or at a school event, and even if state or federal pornography laws are not broken.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has taken issue with Troy’s policy -- namely, how broadly it defines materials of a sexual nature, and the school’s ability to hand over a student’s private phone to local authorities. According to the Detroit News, the ACLU claims under the district’s current definition, biology books would be considered explicit material.
"While sexting can sometimes be an expression of bad judgment, it’s not a crime and kids should not be criminalized for these mistakes,” Michael J. Steinberg, the legal director for the ACLU Michigan, told WXYZ.
A study released last December found only 1 percent of children between the ages of 10 to 17 had created sexually suggestive images in the past year. These findings appeared to contradict a widely-circulated 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy that estimated as many as one in five teenage girls frequently sent racy images of themselves to others.
Sexting may be more prevalent among young adults, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Michigan. Of the 3,447 men and women between the ages of 18-24 who were surveyed, 28.2 percent said they were two-way sexters, while 12.6 percent identified as receivers. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they were nonsexters.
In many states, teens caught sending a sexually explicit photo of themselves can risk felony charges, jail time and being branded sexual offenders — because doing so is considered manufacturing and distributing child pornography.
Lawmakers across the country, however, say teen sexting wasn’t a common problem back when they enacted harsh punishments for child porn, and are considering legislative changes that would reduce penalties for youthful indiscretions.
In 2011, 21 state legislatures considered bills to adjust penalties for teen sexting; in California, lawmakers weighed legislation that would allow schools to expel students caught sexting. On the east coast, Florida lawmakers voted to punish teen sexting with a $60 fine and community service.
According to the Detroit News, in Michigan, teens guilty of sexting can be prosecuted under child pornography laws and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Possession of sexually explicit material is a four-year felony, and a juvenile conviction for a sexual offense could result in the culprit’s name being added to the state’s sex offender registry.
The district’s policy states "all evidence and electronic devices shall be turned over to the appropriate law enforcement agency."
Machesky told the paper that students could refuse a request to search their cellphone or laptop, in which case the district would contact the parents.
A student found in violation of the policy could face up to a 10-day suspension depending on the severity of the infraction.
Machesky admits there is a gray area when it comes to incidents that occur outside of school that could potentially impact what goes on at school.