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Checking for Sexting: Oak Harbor School Board policy would let school officials search students’ cell phones

Incoming Oak Harbor High School freshmen Sheyenne Sams, left, and Troy Sturdevant receive text messages at Windjammer Park Thursday afternoon. The boys are hesitant to accept the district
Incoming Oak Harbor High School freshmen Sheyenne Sams, left, and Troy Sturdevant receive text messages at Windjammer Park Thursday afternoon. The boys are hesitant to accept the district's proposed policy that allows school officials to search student cell phones with reasonable suspicion.
— image credit: Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times

An Oak Harbor School Board policy regarding cell phone use has been re-written to allow administrators to search students’ phones and to protect themselves against possible criminal charges regarding sexting.

Sexting is a newer phenomenon among middle school and high school students and is defined as sending sexually explicit photos via text messages. Sending, receiving or storing explicit images of minors on a cell phone is a felony in the United States, but currently there are no state laws that prohibit sexting in school or provide punishment. However, laws do give school districts the right to manage students’ cell phone use on school grounds or at school-sponsored events.

The first reading of the new policy, which was unanimously approved at Monday’s board meeting, states, “By bringing a cell phone and other electronic devices to school or school sponsored events, the student and parents consent to the search of the device when school officials have a reasonable suspicion that such a search will reveal a violation of school rules.”

Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon presented the policy to the board. He pointed out that school officials already have the right to search lockers and backpacks with reasonable suspicion; now they’re simply extending that right to the electronic realm.

“We shared this with building administrators and their feedback was that this gives them the latitude they needed to enforce these policies,” Gibbon said. “This gives them the ability to do those investigations, confiscate those devices and go through them. I know it’s something our administrators have had to deal with in various ways.”

The updated policy was based off of recommendations from the Washington State School Directors’ Association newsletter. The newsletter discusses a case that took place in Bothell. A picture of a naked female student in the Northshore School District circulated on cell phones and the girl was suspended from the cheer squad. The student later sued the school officials who investigated the case and charges of dissemination of child pornography were brought against them.

Cases such as Northshore’s demonstrate why clear sexting policies are being implemented.

“This is something I believe we needed very much,” Gibbon said. “It protects the students and the teachers equally.”

But Oak Harbor students don’t seem so sure.

“If this goes over, students are going to be pissed,” Sheyenne Sams, an incoming freshman at Oak Harbor High School, said.

Sams said despite the fact that administrators will only search a phone with reasonable suspicion, it still feels like an invasion of privacy. He believes administrators often make claims against students based on stereotypes and that they don’t take the time to listen.

“They say lots of people are suspicious when they’re really not,” Troy Sturdevant, OHHS freshman, added. “There are rumors going around all the time.”

Students who violate Washington’s laws against duplicating or disseminating images that depict minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct could have to register as sex offenders and deal with the attached stigma.

“Do kids realize that some of the things they’re doing are committing crimes?” asked board member Corey Johnson. “I suspect that they really aren’t thinking in those terms.”

New legislation requires that the board adopt and implement policy revisions by Aug. 30. If the policy is approved, it will be noted in the 2010-2011 student handbook.

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