Restorative Group Conferencing and Sexting: Repairing Harm in Wright County
Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Nancy Riestenberg, who works for the Minnesota Department of Education. In it, she discusses an innovative approach used to address the harm that results from sexting images that are distributed beyond the originally intended recipient.
School Climate Specialist, Minnesota Department of Education
Three years ago, in a middle school in Wright County, Minnesota, students discovered sexually explicit pictures of a student on the cell phone of her boyfriend. The students ran to the bathroom with the cell phone and sent the pictures on to eight other students. By the time the adults in the school discovered them, many student cell phones had received the pictures. The administration asked the school resource officer from the Sheriff’s Office to investigate. Potentially many students could be charged with sending or receiving sexually explicit pictures of a minor, a felony offense. What was the County Attorney going to do?
Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily thought cell phones. If the photo is of a child under the age of 18, the photo could be considered child pornography. Possession and dissemination of child pornography is a felony and could carry a sentence of one year or more in jail and a minimum $3000 fine or both. Collateral consequences of a felony on a student’s record could include being barred from certain jobs, entering the military and being accepted to college or university.
As a result of this case, the Court Services Department, Sheriff’s Office, and the County Attorney Office collaborated with the school district to develop the process currently used to handle sexting cases in Wright County. The process uses community conferencing, diversion and charging based on facts of the cases. The Restorative Justice Agent works with the County Attorney, school resource officer and school administrator to determine the proper approach in each case.
Restorative group conferencing, like victim offender dialogues and circles are a face to face communication processed facilitated by a trained adult, which brings together the persons harmed, the person who did the harm and other affected parties to engage in dialogue about a specific offence or rule violation. The facilitator usually meets with or talks to participants prior to bringing everyone together, ‘so they will know what to expect’ in the conference. The Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota describes process:
The focus of the encounter nearly always involves naming what happened, identifying its impact, and coming to some common understanding, often including reaching agreement as to how any resultant harm will be repaired. Use of these processes can take place at any point in the justice process, including pre-arrest, pre-court referral, pre-sentencing, or post-sentencing and even during incarceration. (Umbreit, et. al, 2006).
In this incident, the decision was made to divert the case to the Wright County Restorative Justice Agent, who set up a restorative group conference to address and repair the harm. In addition to the students, parents of each student participated in the conference as well as the county attorney, the investigating officer, the school administrators and teachers—almost 40 people total. Some parents were initially angry that their child was participating in the conference since they had not made the pictures, but just sent on what they had received. It was the story of the girl who made the pictures that helped clarify the harm. She thought the pictures were just between her and her boyfriend, but now, she was the one who would live with the consequence of the pictures being forever floating on the Internet.
The conference results in an agreement that is made thorough consensus and all participants sign it. In addition to a three day suspension that was imposed before the conference, the students agreed to apologies, to write a written report on the risks and dangers of sending or receiving child pornography and all agreed to immediately report to the school administration or the SRO any sexually explicit pictures they might receive in the future or believe are circulating. The parents agreed to more closely monitor their child’s cell phone and internet use. The school district and county probation agreed to develop a presentation for parents as well as one for all students in the district with age appropriate lessons on sexting, legal and school consequences, and cyber literacy. Everyone signed the agreement. The county attorney agreed to a stay of adjudication or dismissal of charges if the agreement terms were met.
This incident and terms of the conferencing agreement resulted in the development of a county-wide protocol for both prevention education and investigation of sexting incidents.
1. County-wide, age appropriate education. Presentations on sexting, the law and its consequences are presented at the middle and high school levels. Presenters include a county probation office, a school social worker, county social worker and the restorative justice agent. Some schools developed ad campaigns designed by the students to educate their peers and parents. Presentations have also been made to parent groups.
2. Policy regarding cell phones and investigations. School policy regarding cell phones bans them in class; if a phone is found to have sexually explicit pictures on it, the Sherriff’s deputy takes the phone, conducts an investigating, and sends the investigation to the Sherriff’s office. The pictures are captured as evidence. The Deputy deletes the pictures.
3. Diversion or charges. The sergeant in charge of the juvenile and sexual predator unit recommends diversion or charges to the County Attorney. Diverted cases go to the Restorative Justice Agent for conferencing. A student is considered for diversion if he/she has no prior offenses, is not on probation, and if there are no extenuating circumstances. If a student receives an image and deletes it, the sheriff’s deputy will speak with the student and the parents, giving information on how to make cell phones more secure from such images.
Since the first case, there have been over 200 students involved in sexting investigations. All but a few were handled through a diversion process and many of the diversions are conducted as a community conference. Brian Stoll, Wright County Probation Officer presented the following reasons why the process works:
- It gives all those involved a chance to provide input, including school officials;
- It allows the perpetrator/victim to accept responsibility, but also to acknowledge the harm they experienced; and
- It holds individuals accountable without damaging his/her future.
In the three years that the educational and restorative program has been implemented, the seriousness of the cases, the number of youth involved in a case and number of referrals has gone down. “In the early cases,” said Eric Leander, Sergeant in charge of the Juvenile and Sexual Predator Unit, “we saw a lot of graphic video and close ups of body parts. Now, there are no videos and much less explicit pictures of the body.”
“Many of the cases now are between boyfriend and girlfriend, rather than the 10 to 15 person cases we started with,” reported Karen Determan, the Restorative Justice Agent, “and the images have not gone much past the two of them.” “Now students tell teachers or the SRO’s or administrators that they have seen or heard about sexting, so we get to stop the images before they get too far,” said Jeff Scherber, a middle school principal. “Students report even if they just heard about an image or if it has not happened in school. And the parents have been great supporters of our work. It used to be that parents would say, ‘my kid, my phone.’ We don’t hear that any more. They support our policy.”
The goals of the process include educating both the juveniles and the parents, attempting to repair the harm done, help all participants to understand the collateral consequences of sexting, and to deter further incidents. Most importantly, the process helps to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system.
Umbreit, M.S., Vos, B, and Coates, R.B. Restorative Justice Dialogue: Evidence-based Practice. Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, University of Minnesota, 2006.
Wright County Court Services, www.co.wright.mn.us. Michael J. MacMillan, Director firstname.lastname@example.org; Brian Stoll, Probation Officer, Brian.Stoll@co.wright.mn.us.
Law Enforcement Views of Cyberbullying and Sexting
Earlier this summer, Sameer and I (along with our good friend Joe Schafer), published an article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin that describes the perceptions and experiences of law enforcement when it comes to responding to cyberbullying and sexting. This article stemmed from my work a few years ago as a Futurist in Residence with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. For the study, we surveyed 979 police officers (336 school resource officers [SROs] and 643 traditional law enforcement officers who were not assigned to schools). We wanted to know what they thought about these high-tech teen problems and to see if there were any differences in perceived roles when comparing SROs with traditional police officers.
Perceptions and Experiences
The vast majority of the SROs (94%) agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying is a serious problem warranting the response of law enforcement. Similarly, 93% agreed or strongly agreed that sexting is a serious concern for law enforcement. As far as experience, 78% of the SROs reported that they had investigated an average of 16 cyberbullying cases during the previous school year and 67% of the SROs reported that they had personally investigated a sexting incident in the previous year (average=5 incidents).
Like the SROs, the majority of the traditional police officers (82%) agreed or strongly agreed that cyberbullying as a serious problem warranting the response of law enforcement. Seventy-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed that sexting is a serious concern for law enforcement. Relatively few of the traditional officers had experience investigating cyberbullying and sexting cases. Ten percent reported investigating an average of 2 cyberbullying cases during the previous school year and 7% reported that they had personally investigated a sexting incident in the previous year (average=3 cases).
The Law Enforcement Role
As a part of this study, we asked officers to rate (on a scale of 0-10, with 10 equaling a “very important/significant role”) the extent to which law enforcement should play a role in ten different cyberbullying scenarios. The scenarios ranged from relatively minor (e.g., “A teacher confiscates a cell phone from a student in class and wants to determine if it contains any information that is in violation of school policy.”) to much more serious (e.g., “A male student receives an email from an unknown person threatening to kill him at school tomorrow.”). In all cases the SROs rated the law enforcement role significantly higher than the traditional law enforcement officers. Clearly, the officers who work in the schools, who most directly confront these problems, see themselves has having a greater responsibility in dealing with the cases than the officers who do not regularly work in schools.
Experience with cyberbullying and sexting cases was also big predictor of officer perceptions about their role. Specifically, officers who had experience with investigating a cyberbullying or sexting case were over 2.5 times as likely to view cyberbullying and sexting as a significant concern for law enforcement, compared to those who had no such experience. For both cyberbullying and sexting, female officers were significantly more likely to report that they strongly agreed that there was an important role in getting involved in the behaviors. Moreover, officers who had children under the age of 18 living at home were significantly more likely to agree that cyberbullying was something law enforcement needed to be involved in dealing with.
Appropriate Law Enforcement Response
Law enforcement officers, especially those who are assigned to a school, will undoubtedly need to become involved in cyberbullying and/or sexting incidents at some point during their careers. They will be most frequently called upon to act after incidents occur within the student body. While most instances of cyberbullying do not warrant the formal intervention and response of law enforcement, some cases do. Even if the cyberbullying behavior doesn’t immediately appear to rise to the level of a crime, officers should use their discretion to handle the situation in a way that is appropriate for the circumstances. For example, a simple discussion of the legal issues involved in cyberbullying may be enough to deter some first-time bullies from future misbehavior. Officers might also talk to parents about their child’s conduct and express to them the seriousness of online harassment. The law enforcement response typically varies based on how the case is discovered, how much harm has occurred, how evidence is collected, who all is involved, and how well-trained the officer may be. All officers, but especially those assigned to a school setting, should educate themselves about the online behaviors of adolescents. They should also seek to respond to misbehaviors in a reasonable and appropriate manner, with the goal of preventing subsequent problem behaviors without imposing unnecessarily harsh disciplines.
Educators, Students, and Conversations about Technology Misuse
During the last several years, school staff have become well aware that what happens online often significantly impacts the environment at school and the ability of students to learn. It is also true that what goes on at school influences the nature and content of student interactions while away from school. That means that a lack of connectedness, belongingness, peer respect, school pride, and other climate components may very well increase the likelihood of technology misuse off-campus by teens.
We are huge on the importance of creating and maintaining a positive school climate, and so we wanted to study this relationship through our research. We’ve done this in part in a blog entry late last year which demonstrated that in schools where students reported a better climate, students also reported fewer cyberbullying and sexting incidents. To reiterate, schools that were rated by students to have relatively “low” school climate had more reports of cyberbullying and sexting than those rated as “medium” or “high.”
Here are some other important findings worth mentioning:
Educators’ Efforts Matter
We also found that teachers who talk about these issues with their students are making a difference. Even though almost half (46 percent) of students said their teacher never talked to them about being safe on the computer and 69 percent of students said their teacher never talked to them about using a cell phone responsibly, when these conversations happen, they seem to have a positive impact. Students who told us that a teacher had talked to them about being safe on the computer were significantly less likely to report cyberbullying others.
Also, those who told us that a teacher had recently talked to them about using their cell phone responsibly were significantly less likely to say that they had sent a sext to another student. Of course the content of those conversations is also important. Once again, we call for more research to clarify what works in terms of teachers talking with students about safely and responsibly using computers and cell phones.
Students Remain Reluctant to Report
It is also noteworthy that fewer than 10 percent of targets of cyberbullying told a teacher or other adult at school about their experience (about 19 percent of the targets of traditional bullying told an adult at school). Much of the reluctance of students to report these kinds of behaviors stems from their skepticism that the teacher will actually do anything useful to stop the behavior. In fact, most students we speak to suggest that telling a teacher (or other adult) will often make matters worse.
Interestingly, 75 percent of students in our study felt that the teachers at their school took bullying seriously, but fewer (66 percent) felt that the teachers at their school took cyberbullying seriously. So clearly, adults in school have some work to do to convince students that these problems can be resolved effectively. How can a school or classroom hope to have a positive climate if students are afraid or hesitant to talk to adults about these issues? This is just one aspect of school climate that must be corrected if school administrators hope to develop and maintain an environment where youth can freely learn and thrive.
Expectation of Discipline
In our most recent research, we asked students to tell us how likely it would be for someone at their school to be caught and punished for cyberbullying. In general, about half (51 percent) of the students said that it was likely that a student from their school would be punished for cyberbullying. To note, this number dropped to less than 40 percent among the students who had actually been victims of cyberbullying.
When we examined this question from the perspective of different school climates, we found that students from the schools with more positive climates reported a higher likelihood of a response. Specifically, 65 percent of the students at the schools that scored “high” on our scale said that cyberbullies would be punished at their school compared to only 35 percent of the students at the “low-scoring” schools. Here again, the quality of the climate at school shapes student perceptions of accountability for behaviors online.
What is the take home point of this research?
Basically, there are fewer behavioral problems and higher academic performance in schools with a positive climate, the influence of climate extends beyond the school walls. Students who feel they are part of a welcoming environment will largely refrain from engaging in behaviors that could risk damaging the positive relationships they have at school.
You can’t separate climate from instruction. You can’t separate climate from leadership. You can’t separate climate from the purposeful things you do to build a relationship with students. If a school is doing great on one thing, it tends to all fall in line.
~ John Shindler, director of the Western Alliance for the Study of School Climate
Now that we better understand the online experiences of our students, and know that the climate at school is related to those experiences, the next step is to work to transform your classroom and school into a place where students feel safe, respected, involved, and connected. The resources on this site, and our latest book School Climate 2.0 can provide you with a road map for doing just that. Even though it is not an easy path to travel, we are confident that you will not be disappointed when your efforts materialize into happier students and staff and an overall better place to learn and teach.
There is a definite link between school climate and student online behavior. Without question, problems that occur between students in an online environment become issues at school. These issues often include a large number of students, as they can quickly share their opinions online with many of their classmates. Usually, the concern is brought to my attention by a student who reports being bullied or a parent who wants to know “What are YOU going to do about it?”
We have worked hard to educate our students and parents regarding online safety. Recently, we added a curricular unit at the seventh-grade level (soon to start in fifth grade). Each grade level participates in activities regarding cyberbullying. Additionally, we have had experts come in and talk to our students, staff, and parents about how to be more aware of online issues and how to respond appropriately. We are currently working on steps to communicate and practice online behavior expectations as part of the overall system of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at our school.
We try to assist students in resolving cyberbullying issues even if the behaviors did not occur at school. We have had our counselor or trained peer mediators meet with students who are involved in online conflicts to work toward a resolution. As the principal, I have met with several parents to inform (and often educate) them about their child’s online behavior. By confronting the issue, I believe our school climate has improved. Students (and parents) know that we care about them beyond the school walls. They know we believe a safe, bully-free environment is critical to providing the best education possible.
~ Dr. Barry Kamrath, Principal, Bloomer Middle School, Bloomer, Wisconsin
Summary of State Sexting Laws
We define sexting as “sending or receiving sexually explicit or sexually suggestive nude or seminude images or video, usually via a cell phone.” Most commonly when people use the term “sexting” it is to refer to incidents where minors take pictures of themselves when they are nude or nearly nude and send them to others. Often the pics are sent to romantic partners but when they are “exposed” to a broader audience it can result in big problems for both the sender and recipient. That’s because, from the perspective of the criminal justice system, teen sexting could fall under existing child pornography statutes and result in long-term criminal consequences. For example, a teen who takes a nude picture of himself has created child pornography and if he sends it to someone else he has distributed child pornography. The recipient would be in possession of child pornography. Thankfully, it appears that most law enforcement officials are using their discretion to handle these incidents in a more productive way than through the formal justice system.
That said, it is important that states update their laws concerning explicit images of minors to account for these new behaviors so that those involved have some consistent guidance about how to proceed. In an effort to better understand how states have been responding, we have been working to catalog all of the state laws on sexting. As you can see from our summary, seventeen states have passed laws that address minors sending and/or receiving sexually explicit images of other minors and only seven of those actually include the term “sexting” in the text of the law. Most of the laws prescribe a variety of penalties including informal responses and diversion away from the criminal justice system, but three states (Florida, Nebraska, and Utah) specify circumstances under which the minors involved could be charged with a felony. Three states (Nevada, Rhode Island, and Vermont) explicitly state that minors who engage in sexting shall not be considered sex offenders and will not listed on the sex offender registry. Some states also include provisions for the minor’s record to be expunged when they reach a certain age if they successfully complete some educational programming.
I think we are just at the beginning stages of seeing legislation on sexting. Many states are likely sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what other states are doing in this regard to figure out what might work best. Without question this is a complicated issue that requires careful consideration. We will continue to follow developments in this area and if you know of a law in your state that is not included in this summary, please let us know about it!
Sexting is “the sending or receiving of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive images or video via a cell phone.” Most commonly, the term has been used to describe incidents where teenagers take nude or semi-nude (e.g., topless) pictures of themselves and distribute those pictures to others using their cell phones. The images are often initially sent to romantic partners or interests but find their way into the hands of others, which ultimately is what creates major problems. We provide examples and share stories about this trend, and discuss why youth participate in it from a emotional, psychological, and developmental perspective. We also then discuss the latest research findings and cover the legal and criminal issues that are implicated. Finally, we share in detailing what schools and families can do to prevent and respond to sexting incidents.