Porn versus privacy: Teen sexting is becoming a legal minefield for schools

A Pennsylvania teen whose cell phone — taken from her by her principal at school — contained nude images she had taken of herself is now suing the district, saying that the principal’s viewing of the personal photos and decision to give her phone to police and the district attorney violated her rights.

“I was absolutely horrified and humiliated to learn that school officials, men in (the) DA’s office, and police had seen naked pictures of me. Those pictures were extremely private and not meant for anyone else’s eyes. What they did is the equivalent of spying on me through my bedroom window.” she said, in a statement released by the ACLU, which is representing her.

When the principal of Tunkhannock Area High School in Pennsylvania took the teen’s phone in 2009 and discovered the images, he turned the phone over to the district attorney, who threatened to file  child pornography charges against the girl unless she took a class on sexual violence. The girl had sent the images to her longtime boyfriend.

Now, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit on the student’s behalf against the principal, the district, the county, prosecutors and a detective. What’s interesting is that this same school and DA have been in the news on the very same issue. Last year, former District Attorney George P. Skumanick of Wyoming County – he lost his re-election bid in the fall –  told other high school girls that they, too, could face charges after nude photos of them were found on someone else’s cellphone. He also wanted them to attend the classes.

In one case, the photos were from two years earlier at a middle school slumber party  and showed the girls in bras. The DA considered the photos “provocative.” The parents did not, and didn’t think their daughters needed the class. In March of this year, a Pennsylvania appellate court upheld a preliminary injunction barring prosecutors from filing felony child-porn charges against one of the teenage girls involved in the case. The court said prosecutors were using the threat of charges to retaliate against the girl for refusing the class.

I think sexting is a legal minefield for schools, especially when the teens are posting their own photos on their own phones.  And why go after teens whose friends posted silly slumber party photos of them from middle school? Are the girls to blame for someone resurrecting and sharing old photos of them? And are photos of 13-year-olds changing at a slumber party porn?

I would vote for schools steering clear of this.  Anyone disagree?

42 comments Add your comment

Proud Black Man

May 20th, 2010
3:42 pm

Booklover

May 20th, 2010
3:44 pm

“… the principal of Tunkhannock Area High School in Pennsylvania took the teen’s phone in 2009 and discovered the images…”

WHY was he looking through her phone? Unless he had reason to suspect cheating, this was uncalled-for and possibly salacious. I agree that schools should stay out of it. We have enough problems to tackle.

I also do not understand the mental manipulations regarding charging someone with “child pornography” for sending pictures of *herself*. Is she a child and therefore subject to exploitation, or is she an adult capable of making a decision that could land her in legal hot water?

I still have photos from a high school sleepover of some other girls and me, running around in our bras, being goofy. I’m not going to scan them and post them to facebook or anything, but are the police going to come banging on my door, looking for child porn? Oh, and most of the young ladies in those pictures are teachers now… good lord, we could have quite an ethical situation on our hands!!

Tired Dad

May 20th, 2010
3:54 pm

“her longtime boyfriend”. She is only 17! She’s not old enough to have a longtime anything.

Also, kids need to smarten up. So the principal looked through her phone. If she has lost the phone and he found it he might have looked through the pics to identify the owner. If she dropped the phone at a bus stop any stranger might have found it and posted the pictures. Listen up all of you!!! If you simply must have “private” pictures etc on your computer the ENCRYPT them. Google “free aes encryption” to get started.

retired teacher

May 20th, 2010
3:56 pm

I vote for teaching young people more appropriate behavior. I think these kinds of phone photos shoould be given to parents to deal with.

RobertNAtl

May 20th, 2010
4:12 pm

Kids don’t need cellphones at school. Enforce a complete ban on cellphones at school. They just distract students from learning.

plc

May 20th, 2010
4:14 pm

Personally, I think as soon as a student breaks the rules by using a phone during school hours, it’s probable cause for a search. Most are harmless, but it’s also used to communicate drug deals or take pictures of tests.

Our school’s policy is clear – they have to be off during the day. I won’t take up a phone unless I see a student actually using it, and then I turn it in for the liability that puts on me.

If a student is stupid enough to have those pictures on the phone, then that’s his/her own fault. As soon as the rule is broken, privacy goes out the window.

Atlanta mom

May 20th, 2010
4:20 pm

Enter your comments here”The girl had sent the images to her longtime boyfriend.”
AND
“I was absolutely horrified and humiliated to learn that school officials, men in (the) DA’s office, and police had seen naked pictures of me”

Now is a good time for the girl to realize that having nude pictures of herself ANYWHERE, is a bad idea.

Unfortunately, this is one more example of criminalizing stupid teenager behavior. And we can’t continue to do this. There’s a reason they aren’t considered adults. I’m all for holding young people responsible for their actions and letting them suffer the natural consequences thereof. If they haven’t harmed anyone but themselves, let them be stupid, and as folks used to say: You made your bed, you lie in it.

Tired Dad

May 20th, 2010
4:30 pm

To RobertNAtl
Lots of schoold do ban them. My kids high school certainly does. This practice of this is that kids must have them turned off, and not visible. My daughter turns hers off but keeps it with her to prevent theft. The school in this story may well ban them too, maybe the phone was taken because she simply had in her hand. My kids school has a very effective policy. If they catch you with a phone you get punished for that offence… but if they catch you again then the offence is not just having the phone, it now includes “willful disobedience”. Willful Disobedience will get you suspended. Works wonders, no phones in the classes, in the halls nor in the cafeteria.

To Retired Teacher. I suspect that just telling kids “don’t take pictures of your boobs” will have limited effect. I suggest a frank discussion of how electronic photos never die, and the consequences (e.g. child porn) of being caught with them. A Carrot & Stick approach.

Hank Rearden

May 20th, 2010
4:37 pm

Bring back the pay-phones.

Having a cell phone in high school is like bringing your w hore to church.

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HS tchr

May 20th, 2010
4:49 pm

If they’re sending them out now, doesn’t matter when they took them, and the school absolutely should have some response. I’m a teacher, and I’ve seen how sexting can totally disrupt a classroom and ruin young lives. Kids aren’t learning this, no matter how many cases of it pop up, but the pictures become part of the public airwaves after they’re sent out. As dangerous and disruptive as that can be to a child’s life, they have to face the fact that there are consequences for their actions. I don’t agree with the serious charges, but we have to have some pretty hefty consequence in place for kids to learn. Parents aren’t checking phones, reading messages, or teaching their kids, so we have to.

HS tchr

May 20th, 2010
4:53 pm

Proud- I’m as liberal as they come in most respects, but if you put your picture in a text message and send it out where it can be forwarded or posted to Facebook, etc., it isn’t private anymore. Kids have to learn that, and the sooner the better. They also lose some privacy protections once in school. Many court cases have established much narrower personal freedoms in school. I’m not supporting the severity of the legal charges, but it isn’t invasion of privacy if you sent it out in a text message to another phone.

Teaching in FL is worse

May 20th, 2010
5:02 pm

Kids live in the moment, and many of them make poor choices no matter how well informed they are. If I were a parent, I suspect I go out of my way to buy a basic phone that does not have a camera enabled.

When I see issues like these, I thank my lucky stars I teach elementary (although it is not completely unlikely a 5th grader would do it.)

There is also a fine line between something that is a done outside of the school and something that is done in school. Cyber bullying often happens after school hours, but ends up affecting kids during school hours.

Proud Black Man

May 20th, 2010
5:46 pm

“…but it isn’t invasion of privacy if you sent it out in a text message to another phone.”

Thats not true sir.

Cere

May 20th, 2010
5:49 pm

Funny, Maureen – I just today posted something on the topic of social marketing and Facebook (not sexting per se). There may be a tidbit or two in here for readers to share with their children. You really have to educate them – It’s a minefield out there!

http://dekalbschoolwatch.blogspot.com/2010/05/facebook-jekyll-or-hyde.html

SpEd Teacher

May 20th, 2010
5:57 pm

Students should not have their phones on at school, period. One has to wonder though, how did the principal find the pictures? Once a phone is confiscated, does a school have grounds to go through its contents? Unless the school suspects that the student was using the phone to hurt others, it seems inappropriate for administrators do go through the files contained on it. Were I that child’s parent, I would be extremely upset that they went through my child’s phone without cause. It is foolish to take and send nude pictures of oneself, but the administrator should not have gone through the phone.

Cere

May 20th, 2010
6:20 pm

True that, SpEd Teacher – kind of a creepy move by that principal.

Jackie Moon

May 20th, 2010
7:04 pm

It’s real simple. If your kid can’t keep their phone put away at school, don’t let them take it to school. They are not allowed to have them out during school hours. That’s all.

outspoken1

May 20th, 2010
7:15 pm

while it “might” have been alright for the principal to take the phone away until after school hours. I do NOT think it was alright for anyone at school to look at someone’s private phone. Unless you are paying the bill you have no right to look at someone else’s private anything….
Give it only to the parents after school. If they choose to have a look and see then so be it.

lulu

May 20th, 2010
7:23 pm

(Sorry for the above – didn’t mean to hit Enter!)

IIRC, when I was in high school the rule was that inside of the school, we had no guarantee (or even assumption) of privacy. If she brought her phone to school, she (theoretically knowingly) took the risk that anything on it might be seen. I also agree with those who say that she should not have had her phone in school, period, whether she thought its contents were private or not.

Do I think it’s creepy and feel for the girl that her school principle and other male adults have now seen these pictures of her? Totally. But I really don’t feel that she has a leg to stand on, because she took the pictures, she sent them out, and she brought them to school; she needs to own her screw-up.

catlady

May 20th, 2010
7:58 pm

Why aren’t the PARENTS addressing this (their innocent little girl sexting and sending nude pictures, plus violating the ban on cell phones) and they want to go after the SCHOOL?!?! Symptomatic of what ails us, every day.

minus

May 20th, 2010
8:43 pm

kids don’t have the right to privacy in school. i’m not sure why that principal wanted to look through the phone, but i KNOW kids don’t have the right to privacy in school. when you, as a student, come on school grounds you and anything on your person, in your locker, in your car, etc. are fair game. period.

Jane

May 20th, 2010
8:54 pm

Kids have been fooling around FOREVER. It is part of growing up. It is not the end of the world and it is none of anybody else’s business. Those school administrators should be sued.

Sam

May 20th, 2010
8:57 pm

this is the reason I’m getting my teen a phone that calls mom and dad…no texting, no internet.

HS Teacher, Too

May 20th, 2010
9:00 pm

There are probably countless legitimate reasons for the principal to have looked through the phone. There are also probably countless ways he could have been “shady,” for lack of a better way to put it. But from my experience, principals don’t have time to be shady, or nosy, just for the sake of it. Unless the guy really was a creep, there is far too much other stuff going on to want to know what’s in a kid’s cell phone without having a reason to be looking.

As some other posters have said, when they are at school, public school students do NOT have the same rights as adults. That means that the principal would not have to show much to justify his search of the phone. Add to that the fact that once you send text messages of yourself you can’t cry “reasonable expectation of privacy” in this day and age, nevermind with that specific audience (teenagers). Seems like unless the principal was egregious in his abuse of his discretion, he didn’t do anything wrong. CERTAINLY by reporting it, he did what he thought was RIGHT, and we can’t fault the guy for trying to do the right thing. (And again, if it turns out he was shady and did abuse his discretion, then it’s a whole different story.)

But aren’t we blaming the messenger here? Why aren’t we worried about the fact that this child had nude photos of herself?! Catlady is dead on.

V for Vendetta

May 20th, 2010
9:45 pm

Agree with catlady. Sounds like the girl’s parents have bigger fish to fry–namely their own daughter.

FatherIn Cartersville

May 20th, 2010
9:47 pm

I think we all agree that the girl shouldn’t have had nude pictures of herself on the phone. DUH! I believe that the young lady will end up very wealthy after her lawsuits are settled.

To begin with, I cannot see why the principle would be looking through her photos (he did not take it from her in class, just as she was holding it in the hall). He should have taken the phone (as is policy in most schools) and called her parents to let them know and to have them pick the phone up. Case closed. Instead, (without sufficient cause) he snooped-plain and simple.

I agree that it is a shame that a young girl would have nude photos of herself but that is not the main issue here (unfortunately). The issue (legally) is the principle’s actions, and the D.A.’s actions. That is what will be addressed (rightfully so) in court. You have to leave the personal issues of the photo’s themselves to the girl and her parents.

And as the HS Teacher said, he did “what he thought was right”. Sorry, but in this day and age where a student can be suspended(or expelled) for having a nail file, I don’t believe for a second that a policy is not in place on what he can and can’t do in that type of a situation. To many lawsuits have led to an enormous amount of rules and regulations.

AM I to believe that some of you actually believe that her principle should have called the police and the D.A. instead of her parents?

James

May 20th, 2010
10:01 pm

I suggest people study up on what the law says about child pornagraphy and kids. OCGA 16-12-100. People tend to for get that it is ILLEGAL for minors to view pornagraphy. Period. It is also illegal to view nude images of minors. Period. So why shouldn’t these teens be held accountable for those actions? It is a FELONY punishable by 5-20 years in prison.

Also, you have all mentioned “reasonable cause” for the principals or other school officials to perform the search. Two things – 1) there is NO reasonable expectation of privacy with electronic devices. 2) School officials do NOT need probable cause to perform a search – law enforcement needs probably cause. School officials need only “reasonable suspicion” to do a search.

ScienceTeacher671

May 20th, 2010
10:11 pm

Tired dad, we had so many students being caught with cell phones at our school that the BOE changed the policy – first offense is 1 day suspension, 2nd offense is 2 days, etc.

It hasn’t really slowed down the number of cell phones in class, but it has greatly increased the number of suspensions. I had one student with 3 offenses within a month’s time.

The Law

May 20th, 2010
10:27 pm

To start with, you have to privacy from the administration while in school. The school acts “in loco parentis” (in place of the parent) when a child is at school. This gives the administration all the rights in the world to look through this child’s phone. If a parent does not like this, they should home school. Of course, the child could leave the phone at home or not take nude pictures of herself. As for the pictures of the girls in bras, that is not considered porn. This is why they won their case in court. I agree the DA might be on a personal quest, but the case of the nude photos is a crime. There is no expectation of privacy in a school.

catlady

May 21st, 2010
6:57 am

Actually, the princiPAL could be punished for NOT calling in authorities! You see, we have this thing called MANDATORY REPORTING. He could lose his job, his license, and perhaps be arrested if he did not report this.

Cere

May 21st, 2010
9:55 am

@The Law: “This gives the administration all the rights in the world to look through this child’s phone. If a parent does not like this, they should home school.”

Really? Have we become a police state inside our schools? I don’t think schools understand or care to understand how teens click. Cellphones and texting is practically part of a teen’s hormonal DNA. Maureen recently posted an article encouraging teachers to work with students and use their phones during class – to look up info, to find trivia on a topic, etc.

http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2010/05/15/wired-from-the-womb-we-are-looking-at-a-generation-that-can’t-not-text/

Now, granted, harboring nude photos of yourself on your phone is very, very dumb, but can we not deal with this issue by “educating” teens as to how the web crawlers pick these up and they can go viral — creating an embarrassing issue for that teen for a looooong time? Can we not update our 9th grade health classes to include “life” issues like this? Can we not send students to the counselor for “counseling”? No – instead, we make it a “crime”, thereby creating yet another wall between students and their teachers. Clear, direct instruction with rules and boundaries need to be set – and mentoring to teens as they grow up and enter the adult world will help them navigate it better and make better choices in the end. Making them feel like a criminal forever is useless and cruel, IMO.

There really is a difference between an adult creating and publishing child porn for other adults to view – and nutty, hormonal teens with no frontal lobe yet posting nude photos of themselves. We have to figure out what kind of over-sexualized society have we created that encourages (maybe even endorses) this kind of risky behavior? Gee – how about you guys who love to watch those Victoria Secret commercials giving us some insight? How about Hollywood movies? MTV videos? Lady Gaga? (Do as I say, not as I do!)

IMO, criminalizing what has become common teen behavior is not the way to go – teaching, mentoring, guiding, counseling, and encouraging better behavior usually works with teens. At least give it a whirl at a first pass – instead of the Go Directly to Jail method we seem to endorse these days. Have we no compassion for the growing up process anymore?

BTW – catlady – if the principal hadn’t rifled through the girl’s photos – he would not have crossed into the realm of “mandatory reporting”. I haven’t heard about “mandatory photo searching”.

The Law

May 21st, 2010
10:20 am

Cere, I never said anything about the teen going to jail. My point was the fact the school acts as the parent when the child is in school, therefore giving them the right to look through the phone. Do not get a police state confused with acting in place of a parent. Maybe if the parents were taking a more active role in their child’s life, the principle would not have found this. Maybe just maybe, the parents should have found this first. I know it is an amazing idea that a parent actually be a parent.
As for the law, I agree the law needs to be updated and tailored to fit more situations. At least the law in Georgia does. I cannot speak for the law in PA. Let’s remember that is where this incident occurred. I also agree our teens need to be educated on the laws. They also do not need to be coddled in the schools. One of the problems I have noticed is how we try not to hurt their feelings, because we think they cannot handle it. Then they get into the real world and cannot cope. We need to be preparing them not treating them like China dolls that will break.

Booklover

May 21st, 2010
10:23 am

Right on, Cere!

I am disappointed by the fervor with which some teachers and administrators pursue such issues which are, frankly, none of their darn business NOR part of their jobs.

Mandated reporting is there to protect kids from abusive situations. It’s not to be used to punish the kids–unless they are the abusers, and I don’t see that in these situations.

We do need to teach kids how to use electronic media appropriately. It would seem that some educators need the same lesson.

the prof

May 21st, 2010
10:30 am

Quit it PBM, you aren’t black.

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James

May 21st, 2010
7:41 pm

The Law has it right and some of you are ignoring what the law says. It has not criminalized sexting – nude images of minors has been illegal for a long long time. There is simply not been a provision to the law put in for this situation (many states have).

Also, Cere, again you should check georgia law. OCGA 20-12-1185 bans the use of cell phones during instructional time. Again, it is state law. That same law also gives the schools the ability to completely ban cellphones if they wish to.

Just because we don’t agree with what the law says, it is the law. The principal (if it had been in Georgia – can’t say what the law in PA says) would have been 100 % within the law in Geogia. Turning the cell phone with the nude image of a minor again is a Mandatory reporting issue. And not all mandatory reporting issues are to protect children from abusive situations – laws about weapons and drugs on campus are also mandatory reporting laws.

Lee

May 21st, 2010
10:28 pm

Take away points:

1. Once you send an email, text message, etc, etc, you should have no expectation of privacy.

2. To take photographs of yourself in embarrasing or compromising positions is just plain stupid.

3. The principal really did not have cause to look into the files on this student’s phone. She got in trouble for talking on the phone during school.

4. Password protect your phone. Especially if you are going to do something stupid like have naked photos of yourself on it.

5. Students do not forfeit basic rights just because they step onto a campus and some overbearing principal with a Napoleon complex is running the show.

6. Have you seen what teenage girls are wearing at the beach nowadays? Holy cow.

Ole Guy

May 22nd, 2010
4:12 pm

Teach 671, I would imagine “awarding” a student with suspension would be just that…AN AWARD. Why not just collect the damn things as students attempt to challenge the admonishment to refrain from cell phone use in school? They can then be claimed BY THE PARENT DURING NORMAL SCHOOL HOURS and BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. In know, there are those who will sing the chorus “CAN’T DO THIS CAN’T DO THAT”…TO HELL WITH EM! As long as the educational system insists on playing games with these people, they will continue to entertain themselves with the very notion that their actions achieve little beyond attracting favorable attention.

GET WITH IT, EDUCATORS! You’re allowing/inviting, if not subconsciously begging the inmates to run the asylum. Stop relying on the safe, politically correct courses of action. First you (all) must gain control of your profession by way of organizing. Once you have gained union affiliation, you will have a collective voice to your management (a term employed with an abundance of charity) so that these operating rules can be formulated, enunciated, and executed.

If you take any other course of action, you will forever maintain your current status as handmaidens of the whims of DOE and their cronies.

THINK ABOUT, TEACHERS, and then DO SOMETHING…COLLECTIVELY.

HStchr

May 22nd, 2010
8:57 pm

Proud- check the law on students’ right to privacy. There is very little on campus, and kids need to know that. Cell phones aren’t spelled out in the law currently, but if it were a message threatening to kill someone or blow up the school, we’d all be screaming for the authorities to read/view, whatever. If it were an e-mail for Facebook posting threatening harm, we’d demand something be done. What this case tells me is that it’s time to make sure parents and students understand privacy laws and to spell out how cell phones and other electronic devices are or are not covered.

If you were in a school when this happens, you’d understand how important an issue this is. It totally disrupts instruction and learning when kids know that type of message is flying around. If nothing else, the kids are liable under local laws regarding disruption of the school day. That law covers a great many student issues that interrupt learning.

Warrior Woman

May 25th, 2010
1:33 pm

@ HS Teacher Too – You don’t think principals have time to be shady? Tell that to students and staff of schools where former Cobb principal Bynum was ever in charge. He seems to have had plenty of time to be shady, creepy, or whatever else you would like to call it.

Ray

June 2nd, 2010
10:38 am

No other story about this has reported that “the girl had sent the images to her longtime boyfriend.” What the lawsuit says is “Those pictures were extremely private and not meant for anyone else’s eyes.”

Anyway, looking through that girl’s phone at her pictures was as bad as reading her diary or indeed, peeking in her window. What gives educators the belief that they are just like parents, I’ll never know. Enough legal bills and you’d think they would learn but they just don’t.