Lawrence school board members are embracing a statewide effort to develop an appropriate punishment for students who engage in “sexting.”
While members say such activity is prohibited and continues to have no place in or around schools, the state’s criminal consequences — starting at more than two years in prison, up to $300,000 in fines and a lifetime of registering as a sex offender — could use another look.
“This would allow people to have an opportunity — especially when they’re teenagers — to make a mistake, yet not have it influence their whole life,” said Marlene Merrill, a board member who retired two years ago after 35 years in education. “There should be consequences. Nobody’s saying there shouldn’t be consequences. But when your name is put on the sexual predator list, that has serious lifetime consequences.”
Merrill served on the Kansas Association of School Boards committee that developed the initiative, one of five resolutions up for approval this weekend during the organization’s statewide convention in Wichita. The organization will use such findings to lobby legislators during the upcoming session, which begins in January.
Merrill brought up the sexting topic recently with members of the Lawrence school board after outlining a fairly typical lineup of legislative priorities regarding school financing, programming, early-childhood education and federal achievement standards.
Sexting, she said, is becoming more of an issue and is certain to remain an issue in the years ahead, as the use of mobile phones, laptop computers and other electronic devices are employed to access various forms of social media. Students — either in school or out of school — may send inappropriate images or write improper messages to boyfriends, girlfriends or others.
Potential for prosecution
Sending or possessing nude images of people under the age of 18 can, in the eyes of the law, be prosecuted as sexual exploitation of a child.
“The problem is that if you are 10 or 12 and you do something like this that is inappropriate, the only recourse in our current system is to treat that person like a sex offender,” Merrill said.
School employees are required to report such instances to authorities if they come across such images, said Charles Branson, Douglas County district attorney.
Branson’s office has prosecuted a number of cases regarding sexting, including some that ended in convictions carrying mandatory registration as sex offenders. Such cases arise every few months, he said.
“We’ve done everything from having teens go through counseling programs to make them aware of the seriousness and the consequences of their actions — both criminal and social — to charging crimes in situations where we believe it warranted some kind of criminal history,” he said. “It’s a very big deal.”
Education is key, Branson said: Teens need to understand the ramifications of having a picture of themselves, or possessing a picture of somebody else, that they wouldn’t want anyone else to see.
He would welcome legislators studying the issue and considering whether to make changes to laws, which were imposed to stop child pornographers.
‘You can easily overreact’
“The digital age and social media have opened up a new can of worms for everybody to figure out how to apply our laws that weren’t written with these things in mind,” Branson said. “We have to use a great amount of discretion in these cases, to make sure our actions meet with the criminal conduct. You can easily overreact to the conduct.”
Mark Bradford, vice president of the Lawrence school board, suggests that any legislative review also include a look at the use of social media for bullying and other inappropriate behaviors. But he acknowledges that sexting activities should be addressed, even though he considers such behaviors more of a parental issue than a school responsibility.
“Perhaps Brett Favre could come in and give us tips on what to do and what not to do,” Bradford said, referring to the NFL quarterback caught up in a league investigation over images he allegedly sent to a former team employee.