LOS ANGELES – When Viviana Martin Del Campo walked into her sixth-period geometry class at Venice High School in March, she saw a group of boys huddled over a cellphone, laughing. The target of their attention turned out to be a sexually explicit photo of two classmates.
The photo, circulated on social media, embroiled the school in turmoil after the arrests of 15 boys, mostly on campus, on suspicion of sexually assaulting two girls.
But what shocked Viviana, 16, wasn’t so much the photo. It was the arrests. Sexting has become so common, she said, that few teenagers would ever imagine that police would get involved.
“I didn’t take it as much because it kind of happens often,” she said. “Students shouldn’t be criminalized for it.”
As teens’ access to social media expands – 92 percent report going online daily and three-quarters have access to smartphones, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report – sexting has also proliferated. A 2014 Texas study found that 28 percent of teens surveyed had sent naked pictures of themselves via social media and 60 percent had been asked for one. Both researchers and students say that sending other texts – including photos of others, semi-nude pictures, sexually explicit cartoons and messages – is even more pervasive.
“It’s a perfect storm of adolescent hormones coupled with the immediacy of a smartphone,” said Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch who co-authored the sexting study.
The growth in sexually explicit photos in text messages has set off wide-ranging responses from families, educators, legislators and law enforcement. More than 20 states have enacted legislation regarding it since 2009 – some to strengthen penalties, others to lower them – although efforts to do so in California have failed.
The Los Angeles Unified School District plans to roll out what may be the state’s most ambitious educational campaign around the issue. Officials are creating a video, lesson plans and handouts on sexting, which they plan to distribute to all schools beginning this fall.
L.A. Unified Police Chief Steven Zipperman said the campaign will teach students about the dangers of sexting, including possible criminal violations of child pornography and obscenity laws and the personal consequences.
“We’re really trying to get the message out that before you push that send button, please think about what it may mean to you – not just the criminal factor but the embarrassment, your future employment, college entrance. What you do now matters, and they need to understand that,” Zipperman said.
Zipperman said the campaign did not grow directly out of the Venice High case, in which prosecutors ultimately declined to file charges against the boys based on insufficient evidence.
During their investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported, detectives confirmed that at least one photo that appeared to show sex acts involving teenagers had circulated on social media.
The campaign is part of the district’s continuing efforts against bullying, said Holly Priebe-Diaz, intervention coordinator. She said teachers will be asked to share the material and engage students in conversations about it.
Officials also plan to invite parents to watch the video and discuss it with their children. The campaign will involve school police, families, community organizations, teachers, counselors, administrators, students and the city attorney’s office, she said.
Other major school districts have handled sexting, which is not specifically addressed in state education laws, under discipline policies for bullying, sexual harassment or other offenses. San Diego Unified offers students a program through the local police foundation on Internet safety, which includes sexting. Oakland Unified trains administrators on district complaint policies, including how to respond to inappropriate online behavior, according to spokesman Troy Flint.
In the Buffalo Public Schools, the district’s code of conduct includes a section that reads as follows: “The taking, disseminating, transferring, or sharing of obscene, pornographic, lewd, or otherwise illegal images or photographs, whether by electronic data transfer (wireless communication devices) or otherwise (commonly called texting, sexting, emailing, etc.) may constitute a CRIME under State and/or Federal law. Any person taking, disseminating, transferring, or sharing obscene, pornographic, lewd, or otherwise illegal images or photographs will be subject to the disciplinary procedures of the school district and reported to law enforcement and/or other appropriate state and federal agencies, which may result in arrest, criminal prosecution, and LIFETIME inclusion on sexual offender registries.”
Students should be given facts about sexting without exaggerating its risks, said Temple. While sexting that is coerced, inappropriately shared or between an adult and minor is clearly wrong, he said, voluntary exchanges between two teens should be discouraged through education rather than punishment.
Estimates vary on how much students use their cellphones for sexual texts. A 2011 national Pew survey found only 3 percent of all teen cellphone users had sent naked or near-naked photos or video of themselves, although 21 percent of teens ages 14 to 17 said they had received them.
Police and prosecutors across the nation have charged teens who sent, received or distributed sexually explicit material with child pornography, invasion of privacy and other offenses. In May, New Jersey police arrested 19 teens and an adult on suspicion of sexting nude photos of a female student. Last year, Illinois police arrested two eighth-graders allegedly involved in a “sexting ring” of two dozen middle-school students, ages 11 to 14, who reportedly took and shared nude photos of themselves.
The ACLU, however, has beaten back some of the cases on First Amendment and other grounds and is calling for education, rather than criminal penalties, for youth.