By MELINDA WILLIAMS
Pulaski County Sheriff Jim Davis confirmed Friday the seizure of some school students’ cell phones as part of an investigation into a practice often referred to as “sexting.”
“The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office is working closely with Pulaski County school officials in the recently discovered distribution of inappropriate messages and photos at local schools,” he said in a press release.
Although distributing such materials can result in felony charges, Davis said no criminal charges have been filed “at this time.” The investigation is continuing.
Sheriff’s office personnel and school administrators have seized the cell phones of “a number” of students, according to the sheriff.
“The dangers of using social media to trade or send inappropriate messages or photographs among teens are great and have many potential long term damaging and illegal results,” said Davis. “Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office and the Pulaski County School Board are working closely on educating teens and their parents about the dangers of ‘sexting’ and its potential consequences.”
He said no additional information on the investigation will be provided by the sheriff’s department “due to the circumstances and the age of the participants.”
According to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, sexting is defined as “youth writing sexually explicit messages, taking sexually explicit photos of themselves or others in their peer group, and transmitting those photos and/or messages to their peers.”
Even though the person possessing or distributing such messages and photos may not have a criminal intent, it can be prosecuted as such, especially if a child sends a sexually explicit photo to an adult or as the result of being “coerced or enticed to do so.”
A 2009 study by Cox Communications found that about 19 percent of students admitted to sexting, with 60 percent of those students having sent the messages or photos to boyfriends or girlfriends. The study found that 11 percent of the students sent messages to someone they didn’t know and 14 percent had been caught sexting, primarily by a parent.
The Attorney General’s Office points out that producing, storing or sharing lewd or explicit pictures of minors is illegal in Virginia and can lead to criminal charges such as production, possession or distribution of child pornography. Other charges could be filed if the sexting involves bullying or harassment.
A report by VDOE Division of Technology and Career Education, entitled “Sexting: Implications for Schools,” addresses some of the consequences of sexting incidents nationwide:
•An 18-year-old boyfriend was required to register as a sex offender after electronically distributing nude photos of his girlfriend.
•An 18-year-old girl committed suicide after a nude photo she sent to her boyfriend was distributed and shared with others and posted on a website.
•A 52-year-old man contacted a 14-year-old girl and asked for more explicit photos of her after photos of her were shared on the Internet.
“What may begin as a spur of the moment decision for a teenager can spin completely out of control,” the VDOE report states. “… Once a picture is sent electronically, it is very difficult — if not impossible — to retrieve.”
The report offers links to several resources to help parents address the topic of sexting with their children, including www.commonsensemedia.org/talking-about-sexting and www.connectsafely.org/Safety-Tips/tips-to-prevent-sexting.