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Spokane Public Schools may reduce punishment for sexting

UPDATED: Tue., March 30, 2021

Spokane Public Schools is considering new rules that lessen penalties for sexting, while reducing the role of principals in handling individual cases.

The new guidelines were reviewed but not approved during a school board meeting last week, and more revisions are possible before they are finalized.

The practice of sexting, defined as electronically sending nude or sexually suggestive photos or messages, has grown in recent years, especially among teenagers.

Depending on the circumstances, it can be a crime, though a Washington state law passed in 2019 reduces most violations by teenagers to misdemeanors.

The district’s new approach, based on language approved by the Washington State School Directors’ Association, mirrors the intent of the 2019 law, which is to help teenagers learn from their mistakes.

“There will be less disciplinary action than what there has been in the past,” sad Jerrall Haynes, president of the Spokane Public Schools board of directors.

“That’s not to say that people won’t be held accountable,” Haynes said. “But the question is: What does that accountability look like?”

Under the proposed guidelines, police may still be notified. However, in-school discipline is being reduced.

Under district guidelines, sexting entails “sending, forwarding, displaying, retaining, storing or posting sexually explicit, lewd, indecent or pornographic photographs, images or messages by or on a cell phone, computer or other telecommunication device.”

While usually applicable only during school hours, the policies also address after-school activity “if the behavior detrimentally affects the personal safety or well-being of school-related individuals; the governance, climate, or efficient operation of the school; or the educational process or experience.”

Proposed changes spell out steps for first, second and third sexting offenses by a student.

After the first offense, parents or guardians will be notified and the district will file an information report with the police by phone or in writing. Also, the student’s phone or electronic device will be confiscated, searched and returned only to a parent or guardian, and the district may administer “appropriate interventions and may take other actions as appropriate.”

The steps are similar for second and third offenses, with one important difference: that police “may” be notified.

Also, following a third offense, the student “may” be ineligible to participate in extracurricular activities.

Gone under the proposed policy is the allowance that “exceptional misconduct penalties may be imposed, if in the opinion of the administration it is warranted.”

The proposed change raises one question: How will the district discipline students who repeatedly engage in sexting, but not at levels that would necessarily involve law enforcement?

Jodi Harman, director of Student Services for the district, said Friday that the district is attempting to align with statewide practices “emphasizing restorative practices over punishment.”

However, Harmon and Haynes said that the new policy allows flexibility to impose discipline on a case-by-case basis.

“There’s always individual factors for every incident,” said Harmon, who added that many students don’t realize the seriousness of sexting.

In a report on sexting published in 2018, U.S. News and World Report offered several suggestions to parents.

  • Remind your children that any photo that they send or give someone can become public, even if they originally sent the photo in a private email or text message. Encourage students to avoid sending any photos that they would feel uncomfortable being widely distributed.
  • Use your cell phone plan to protect your kids. Cell phone service providers offer parents the option of choosing to block their children’s phones from receiving any images.
  • Tell students about the consequences that have arisen from teenagers forwarding explicit pictures that they were originally sent by girlfriends or boyfriends. Sending other people’s explicit photographs is considered pornography, and sending photographs that depict nudity in someone under 18 can be considered distributing child pornography.
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