District Tackles Sexting

ST. MARYS — In the wake of a group of local students being charged with unruliness by sexting, school officials are noting they have discussed the topic at school, and they believe it’s a topic parents should talk about with their children at home.

Two St. Marys Middle School 12-year-olds, a male and a female, were recently charged with unruliness by sexting, and in a separate case, a 17-year-old St. Marys male and a 14-year-old female at St. Marys Middle School were charged with the same thing.

“I think that there will always be issues with how students learn to communicate with each other,” St. Marys Middle School Principal Mary Miller said of the issue of sexting among her students. “Before technology, they wrote notes that they shouldn’t write or they said things to each other that they shouldn’t say, and those things still happen, but when you add technology in, now their communication is just exponentially bigger ... If I send a text I can send it to 100 people in three seconds. The consequences of making mistakes as I learn to communicate get bigger. I think students will say they’ve always been learning how to communicate appropriately — what’s OK and what isn’t.”

How it was addressed

St. Marys Middle School Guidance Counselor Rebecca Moore noted when school officials saw the issue of sexting, they contacted local law enforcement to bring attention to the consequences of sexting.

“When we discovered this issue, I called Officer Blank and said, ‘What can you do to help?’,” Moore said.

In November, Sheriff’s Deputy Sam Blank noted he put on an assembly for middle school students addressing technology safety, including text messaging and social networking.

“Every time I do my presentations, I’ve been doing them for about three years, and it changes with newer technology, more information, and also the presentation is adjusted for grade levels,” Blank said.

“That presentation is geared for elementary, middle school, high school to parents. It has the same foundation but there’s more in-depth stuff for the parent presentation.”

Blank, who also serves as the DARE officer for Auglaize County, noted his approach with his presentations is to not scare the students.

“Just the main thing I try to point out to the kids — I don’t use the presentation as a scare tactic, it’s just the truth — I focus somewhat on the legal aspects of doing certain things with their computer or phone,” he said. “I spend 95 percent  talking about the moral things and how it can destroy your life in the non-legal way, like ruining your reputation. They’re smart, once you lay it out on the table, you see it processing on their faces while you’re talking.”

Miller said she could see the students’ realization when Blank addressed them about the consequences.

“It really seemed to make a big impact,” she said. “We had very good attention from them during that — for a few guys it was like ‘Wow.’”

It’s not just about phones

Blank noted sexting is not limited to phones — it can happen on iPods or tablets, as well.

“Maybe they don’t have a cell phone, but there are certain music players that are WiFi accessible that have apps that allow you to send text messages without having a cell phone plan,” he said.

He also noted different programs, including free ones, that allow them to make phone calls, as well. Some of which Miller noted she had never heard of before.

“I think it’s very difficult to keep up with technology and what it can do,” she said, adding the importance of communication between parents and their children.

“To me, I think there’s an issue here of, it comes down to making sure you’re in touch with your kids and having a good relationship with them and making sure that you’re talking to them. Even if you feel like, ‘I can’t keep track of every technology thing that’s happening, I still can stay in touch with my child.’ I can have good conversations.”

Blank said the issue could also be with parents not wanting to know what their child is up to — in case it is something that is possibly illegal.

“I think a lot of it has to do with that a lot of parents just don’t want to know,” he said. “They want to please their kid, they want to get them — they’re going to beg and cry and plead with them they want an iPhone or Droid or whatever. They give it to them, and they just don’t understand what it can do or what it does. I guess parents sometimes think ignorance is bliss so they don’t have to worry about what they’re actually doing on it.”

What parents can do

It is important, Blank said, for parents to take caution when allowing their children to have access to different types of technology.

“They have to educate themselves on what technology is available to their child, do their homework,” Blank said. “A lot of parents just get their kid whatever they want, whether it’s a smartphone, an iPhone, a Droid, different types of music players that are Internet accessible, because they don’t understand what the capabilities are.”

As a parent herself, Miller noted a solution she has in place for her family.

“I often tell parents that when I was in middle school, we had one phone in our house that was on a cord,” she said.

“So if I wanted to talk to my friends, I had to sit in my kitchen, and I knew that my parents or my brothers and sisters could walk through at any moment. That really helps you make good decisions because you know you’re being monitored. So what I think is that you have to somehow create that monitoring when they have their own phones. For me as a parent, that means I pick up their phones and I check their texts sometimes and see what they have stored on there and who they’re talking to. That’s my solution, I don’t know if that works for everybody.”

That policy, Blank added, is something parents should think about.

“Knowing that at any time that it can be checked or monitored, having the policy that right now, hands off the computer or hands off the phone let me see it, I think that puts in the back of their mind, I need to watch what I’m saying, watch what I’m doing,” he said.

Blank added parents can also check the history on their child’s computer or phone.

“Other times parents are not good with technology, they don’t know how to check the history on their computer, especially not knowing how to check it on a smartphone or on an iPhone,” he said. “Kids know how to delete histories way better than parents do.”

There are options for parents to restrict their child’s phone capabilities — such as not enabling picture or text messaging.

“They can change their plans,” he said. “They have to look at  their cell phone plan and see what it offers. A lot of times the text plans don’t have certain capabilities, and that’s just another way of parents being educated.”

What about at school

Currently, a few classes at St. Marys Middle School are participating in the Bring Your Own Technology pilot program, and students can only use their phone or personal handheld devices at school if they are participants in that program.

“Right now, if you’re using technology within the school day and it’s not part of one of those the classes, there are disciplinary consequences,” Miller said.

“However, because this is a pilot, obviously we’re piloting it because there is a very real possibility that phones and personal devices are going to be in everybody’s hands soon. Depending on how the pilot goes, that’s a real possibility for students, that our middle school students will be able to access their phones and their own computers at school.

“So that’s another reason why I think it’s just really important that we are proactive in helping them be responsible because right now, your phone should be off and in your locker or your iPods or whatever should be off during the school day unless you’re working in a Bring Your Own Technology class, but there’s a very real possibility that in the years to come, maybe very soon, you’ll be carrying around your own stuff all the time, so they really do need to learn to be responsible.”

If a child gets caught with inappropriate material on his or her phone, Blank noted both the children and the parents would be contacted.

“If there’s illegal material on that phone, then definitely we’re going to  take it,” Blank said.

As a school, Miller added the administration does have the right to search someone’s phone if they have suspicion it may contain inappropriate material.

“If we’ve been given information that there’s something we need to look into, we can look at somebody’s phone,” she said.

Miller said those issues were what prompted Blank’s presentation and addressing sexting with the students.

“We’ve had some issues come up with technology at school, we have,” she said. “That’s the No. 1 reason that we brought Officer Blank in. We saw some students making mistakes with technology, making poor choices, and we really wanted to address it before we saw more people making the same mistake.”

For the future

As things change, Moore said, the district will continue to bring in people to keep the students informed of various situations and areas where they can get in trouble for certain actions.

“As a school, we know that technology keeps changing, we can have people like Officer Blank that we can call and we can bring in to help teach our students the consequences associated with technology, that we can inform students before something happens,” she said.

The issue of sexting among students isn’t just a St. Marys thing, Blank added, also noting that after he gave the presentation at St. Marys, other schools contacted him for the same thing.

“I’ve offered this program for a while — Minster signed on wanting to do it, Waynesfield had me come out,” he said. “People are integrating me more and more. Hopefully, by talking to the teachers and the students, we can tie in to having parents come in some time — that would be great. We’ve talked about this before, if we can rally enough attention from the community to get people to learn more and more about this.”

Moore noted the whole idea is communication and working together.

“I think it’s important for the community to know that we are addressing it, that we are meeting with Officer Blank and the sheriff’s department and involving the community, we’re working together to correct this,” she said.

Blank added that is a key part to his job.

“My whole career is a proactive approach,” he said. “That’s why I do DARE — I want to try to stop it before it gets out of hand.”