Click to read letter sent home to Spring Grove Area parents and students.

As news broke Thursday that more than a dozen Spring Grove Area High School students were under investigation for passing pictures of two naked classmates on their cell phones, the Dallastown Area School District was revising a letter to parents.

Dallastown wanted to alert parents about sexting -- teens sending racy pictures or videos of themselves through text messages.

It was happening in the district, and it is child pornography, Supt. Stewart Weinberg wrote in the letter, which will be sent out to all middle- and high-school parents this week.

That the two districts were addressing the issue at the same time is only a coincidence.

But if national statistics suggesting one in five teenage girls have sent or posted a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves online are any indication, parents, educators and law enforcement officials will all have to deal with sexting soon enough.

Weinberg said Friday that, while he can't speak for other districts, he imagines it is an issue everywhere.

"Some kids are going to think it's cute or it's fun or it's just between him and her," Weinberg said. "They don't realize how inappropriate it is and they don't realize it's not private."

So far, Weinberg said, most of the cases in Dallastown came to light because a teacher noticed a student using a cell phone in school, confiscated it and then found the pictures.


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They were just as likely to find images of boys as girls, he said.

When confronted, some students who posed were embarrassed once they realized how many times the picture had been passed around, Weinberg said. Others didn't see why it was a big deal.

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Dallastown, like Spring Grove, has worked with the police and the district attorney's office.

Although the Spring Grove students who took the pictures and those who forwarded them could face child pornography charges, the district attorney's office has established a policy.

The students would have to forfeit their phones and take classes, but they would avoid a felony conviction that could follow them for their lifetimes.

Ultimately, that's how the law is supposed to work, said David Post, a professor of cyberlaw at Temple University's Beasley School of Law.

"The law tries to draw a sensible but difficult line," Post said.

Child pornography statutes are designed to punish people who prey on and profit off children, Post said, not teens acting recklessly.

Even though sexting is reportedly on the rise, Post does not expect laws to be rewritten for something so specific. Instead, he said, prosecutors will have to intelligently use their discretion as technologies continue to adapt.

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Legal experts and educators agree that parents need to be more involved.

While schools get involved when phones are confiscated on campus, they don't have universal jurisdiction. And, Weinberg said, the districts are powerless when teens post similar pictures on Web sites such as MySpace.

"Parents need to know what their children are doing on the computers and on their phones," Weinberg said. "Parents cannot ignore their responsibility to protect their children."

Intuitively, teens understand that a photo they send to a friend or two could eventually be seen by hundreds of people, said Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who studies how young people interact with technology.

"But," she said, "because they're used to living in the usual world, they apply the same cultural rules that if you do something and don't get caught, it will disappear."

As new technologies have evolved in the last decade, Tufekci said, many of the barriers that separated public from private were removed. Now a posting on a Facebook page or a text message between two people -- something that leaves a record -- is essentially public, even if those forums often function as private spaces.

Children growing up now have to learn two sets of norms, Tufekci said, one for their face-to-face interactions and one for digital interactions. Schools should teach the difference, as it will affect their entire lives, instead of simply discouraging sexting, she said.

Adults should also remember, Tufekci said, that the medium has changed, but the behavior has not. Teens will always experiment and rebel. Before camera phones, there were Polaroids, the backseat of a car or a secluded meeting place.

Parents need to monitor their kids, Tufekci said, but they also have to know that areas of a digital space should belong to teens.

jfrantz@ydr.com; 771-2062

OFFICAL POLICY

After dealing with a number of sexting cases involving high-school students across the county, the York County District Attorney's Office created the following policy to deal with offenders:

--- Any cellular phones in the possession of a juvenile found possessing child pornography will be seized. If the phones are voluntarily forfeited for destruction, no further sanction will be taken against the juvenile.

--- Any juvenile creating and disseminating the child pornography will have the cell phone seized and be referred to the Youth Aid Panel.

--- Multiple offenses will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.