Student sexting scandal draws parents to community forum

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By Joe Tash

Sexting, in which teens take and send sexually suggestive photos of themselves and others with their smart phones, is a serious problem that can have devastating consequences, San Diego police said at a community meeting in Carmel Valley on Nov. 7.

The meeting, which attracted between 75 and 100 local parents and teens, came in the wake of an acknowledgement by police that they are investigating a string of recent incidents in which photos of underage girls have been shared by local high school students. No arrests have been made in the case, but the investigation is ongoing, said Sgt. Chuck Arnold of the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

“It appears there are students at several high schools who have pictures of other students and they have obtained them in different ways,” said Arnold. He declined to say which high schools are involved in the investigation, but said the case was triggered by a call from officials at one of the schools.

“I would say that at a very large percentage of middle schools and high schools across this nation, this is a problem,” Arnold said.

Thursday’s presentation by Officer Jordan Wells, who works with juveniles and is based in the department’s Northwestern Division, was held in the gym at Cathedral Catholic High School.

“We need to have this conversation, it’s difficult,” said Wells. Although teens may see the practice as harmless, it can have a number of negative consequences, ranging from photos showing up online years later to damage reputations, to causing humiliation that brings some students to the brink of suicide, he said.

There are also legal implications: when a person under age 18 takes or sends a nude or sexually suggestive photo, even of him or herself, the act constitutes a crime, Wells said. Suggestive photos that may start off as a private interchange between boyfriend and girlfriend are often distributed broadly throughout schools and even end up on the Internet, where sexual predators can find them.

“Now the monster is using that, looking at your child’s photo,” Wells said. “It’s going to be (online) permanently, it’s going to end up harming them.”

Wells delivered a tough-love message, urging parents to monitor their children’s use of computers and smart phones, and take action if sexually suggestive photos are found, which could include notifying authorities.

Parents need to know about “photo vaults,” which are secret digital lockers on smart phones where inappropriate photos can be hidden, Wells said. He also cautioned that photos sent on Snap Chat (a popular app that allows teens to send instant photos of themselves to their friends) don’t necessarily disappear a few seconds after they are transmitted, as teens may believe.

“The apps are out there. They open it up and it saves it automatically. Snap Chat is permanent like everything else,” he said.

Arnold, of the Internet task force, said one simple step parents can take is to contact their cell phone and Internet providers and ask for assistance with their built-in parental control software.

The reaction to Wells’ talk was mixed; some parents expressed concern about police becoming involved in sexting investigations at local schools, while others welcomed the message.

Eden Westgarth, a mother of four, said parents like herself are concerned that students could be inadvertently caught up in a criminal case just by reporting a suggestive photo they have received. “We have to find a way to educate, not criminalize,” she said.

But others said it is important for parents to hear they have an obligation to monitor and control their children’s Internet use, and to provide consequences when the rules are violated.

“I think a little slap on the hand while they are under your roof can prevent more serious problems down the road,” said Mariesa Depinto, a parent of a Cathedral student.