SCARBOROUGH — An episode involving several Scarborough Middle School students is sounding an alarm to parents who were unaware that teenagers can not only access inappropriate Web sites on their school-issued laptop or home computers, but can send compromising pictures of themselves or others via e-mail and text messages.
That practice – known as “sexting” – is causing concern in communities around the country.
The Scarborough events came to light when several middle school parents, who spoke on the condition they would not be identified, shared their understanding of what transpired over the last several weeks.
“My daughter and a group of friends were e-mailed by (a boy) and asked to send naked pictures of themselves,” one father said. “I was pissed off about it.”
The father said his daughter told him one of her friends had e-mailed the boy a photo that he then opened in front of other students.
Another father said his daughter told him she’d witnessed the boy opening the photo.
Several girls have reported to their parents that as many as five or six of them were also asked to send nude photos of themselves.
And the mother of another student said her daughter told her that “sexting” nude or suggestive photographs is not uncommon among middle school students.
The mother of one of the girls who allegedly supplied picture neither confirmed nor denied the story. The mother of the second girl said she hadn’t heard about the incident and was unaware of any participation by her daughter.
The father of the boy accused of requesting the photos denied any involvement by his son, but acknowledged his son was suspended for accessing an inappropriate Web site at home on his school laptop computer.
When first asked for information about these reports two weeks ago, middle school Principal Jo Anne Sizemore denied there was any truth to the story and would not say if the school took disciplinary action against any middle school students, who typically range in age from 11 to14.
But she acknowledged the incident on Thursday morning and she said she initially denied it because she’d been asked about “nude” photos and the girl in the one picture she saw was not completely nude.
Several weeks ago, Sizemore said, the school’s monitoring software detected an online conversation between two girls discussing a boy’s request for “inappropriate” photographs of them. After investigating, Sizemore said she discovered the boy had requested pictures from four girls. Three of them complied and sent the photos via their cell phones.
Sizemore said the only evidence she saw was one waist-up photo of one Scarborough High School girl clothed only in a bra. She said he hasn’t seen the rest of the photos, but was told that the girls were never completely nude.
Sizemore said the boy’s laptop computer was seized and checked, his parents were called and he was sent home for a day. He is no longer allowed to take the computer home, but he has use of it in school because he needs it for in-class work, she said.
Sizemore said school officials wanted to check the student’s cell phone, but it was not available.
Sizemore said she also contacted parents of the girls who were involved.
“Those girls did not get into trouble,” she said. “(I told parents) this is what I’m hearing and we want you to have a conversation about what’s appropriate; this is what you need to know. That’s how we always operate.”
Some parents questioned why the school’s monitoring software wouldn’t have picked up the activity. But Sizemore said the software is designed to detect computer access to an inappropriate Web site and does not have the ability to identify inappropriate e-mailed photos that have been downloaded from a camera or camera phone. And, of course, it has no control over “sexting” via a cell phone.
The events described by the students raise several disturbing questions: Why didn’t parents report the incident to the school or to police? Is the possession or transfer of compromising photographs of minors a crime? And what can parents do to better protect their children?
The father of the girl who reportedly refused to supply her picture said he chose not to report the incident because “it was over” and nothing had happened. But he suggested that if his daughter had given in to the request, his decision might have been different.
Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton said if the incident had been reported, police would first determine if the pictures were pornographic under state law before taking any action. But he added that police departments need to be better prepared to deal with the increase in all computer crimes.
“Technology has invaded our lives in every aspect imaginable,” he said. “That’s going to be the challenge of law enforcement going forward; it requires so much training.”
While the incident might have shocked some who thought this kind of thing couldn’t happen in Scarborough, it is the type of case that is drawing the attention of parents, educators and law enforcement officials across the country. This week in Falmouth, Mass., six middle school boys are facing possible child pornography charges after their school principal discovered all
six had a nude picture of the 13-year-old girlfriend of one of the boys.
In mid-January, three girls and three boys at a Pennsylvania high school were charged with child pornography after nude and semi-nude pictures of the girls were discovered on their cell phones.
And in Billerica, Mass., last month, a nude photo a 14-year-old girl sent via cell phone to her boyfriend ended up on more than 100 students’ phones at the town’s middle and high schools, as well as with students at another area high school.
In a recent survey commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, 20 percent of the 653 teens who responded said they had electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. More than a third said it is common for nude or semi-nude photos to get shared with people other than the intended recipient. And 25 percent of teen girls and 33 percent of teen boys said they have had nude or semi-nude images, originally intended for someone else, shared with them.
The figures are even higher for sending sexually suggestive content.
The campaign’s Web site, thenationalcampaign.org, lists five tips for parents when talking to their teens about sex and technology:
• Make sure they know the consequences of sharing information that may never disappear from cyberspace.
• Find out who their online and phone friends are.
• Consider limiting cell phone and computer time and encourage them not to keep the devices in their rooms when it’s bedtime.
• Check out their online profiles on MySpace and Facebook and discuss their ideas of what should be private and public.
• Set limits and clear expectations.
Sizemore said the Scarborough Middle School conducts an Internet safety course for seventh- and eighth-graders. School officials also meet with parents at the beginning of the school year to go over the computer policy, warn parents that home Internet security may not be as tight as the school’s and teach parents how to check their child’s computer history.
She said she encourages parents to communicate with their children about the dangers and consequences of inappropriate use of cell phones and laptops.
“You need to constantly talk with your child about these things,” Sizemore said. “Check their computer and don’t be naive. It is a huge issue, but technology is here and we need it.”