Then she sent the full-length frontal photo to Isaiah, her new boyfriend. They broke up soon after. In less than 24 hours, the effect was as if Margarite, 14, had sauntered naked down the hallways of the four middle schools in this racially and economically diverse suburb of the state capital, Olympia.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it. In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.
But adults face a hard truth. For teenagers, who have ready access to technology and are growing up in a culture that celebrates body flaunting, sexting is laughably easy, unremarkable and even compelling: the primary reason teenagers sext is to look cool and sexy to someone they find attractive. In the fall of , Margarite, a petite, pretty girl with dark hair and a tiny diamond stud in her nose, was living with her father, and her life was becoming troubled.
Her grades were in a free fall. Her social life was deteriorating. A good friendship with a girl had soured, abetted by a fight over a boy. Her parents, recent immigrants, speak limited English and were not able to supervise her texting. In the shifting power dynamics of middle school girls, the former friend understood well that she who sneers first sneers best. As the animosity between the two girls escalated, Margarite felt shunned by an entire group of girls and was eating lunch by herself.
At home she retreated to her bedroom, alone with her cellphone and computer. Her mother would later speculate that Margarite desperately needed to feel noticed and special.
That December, just before the holidays, she took the photo of herself and sent it to Isaiah, a low-key, likable athlete she had recently gotten to know. After the winter break, Margarite was preparing a fresh start. She would move back in with her mother and transfer to a school in a nearby district. She was being bombarded by texts — alerts from worried friends, leers from boys she scarcely knew. But her mother knew otherwise. The child knew at least a dozen students who had received it. The principal then called Antoinette.
The police wanted to question Margarite. On the drive to school, the girl sobbed uncontrollably, feeling betrayed and degraded. The school was buzzing. Meanwhile, another middle school principal in Lacey had begun investigating a sexting complaint that morning. Students were summoned to Ms. Their cellphones were confiscated. Rae went into crisis management. Parents were calling, wanting to know whether their children would be arrested and how she would contain the spread. She drafted a letter for school families. Administrators planned a districtwide voicemail to the families of middle school students.
Chinook teachers would discuss the issue in homerooms the next day. When Jennifer, who works for an accountant, arrived at the school, she ran to Isaiah, a tall, slender boy with the startled air of an unfolding foal.
He was weeping. It was bad. Really bad. He said he had not known that their friendship had disintegrated. How had the sexting from Margarite begun? Well, I think I did send her a picture. Mine was, like, no shirt on. Peters, the county prosecutor, had been hearing that sexting was becoming a problem in the community. In a recent interview, he said that if the case had just involved photos sent between Isaiah and Margarite, he would have called the parents but not pressed charges.
It was mean-girl drama, an all-out attempt to destroy someone without thinking about the implications. He decided against charging Margarite. But he did charge three students with dissemination of child pornography, a Class C felony, because they had set off the viral outbreak. The eighth graders would have to spend the night in the county juvenile detention center. The two of them and a year-old girl who had helped forward the photo were arraigned before a judge the next day.
He changed into regulation white briefs and a blue jumpsuit. He was miserable and terrified. Two adults sending each other naughty pictures, dirty language? Just garden-variety First Amendment-protected speech. But when that sexually explicit image includes a participant — subject, photographer, distributor or recipient — who is under 18, child pornography laws may apply. That is because culturally, such a fine distinction eludes most teenagers. Their world is steeped in highly sexualized messages.
Extreme pornography is easily available on the Internet. Hit songs and music videos promote stripping and sexting. In a Super Bowl advertisement for Motorola, the actress Megan Fox takes a cellphone picture of herself in a bubble bath. The commercial continues with goggle-eyed men gaping at the forwarded photo — normalizing and encouraging such messages. Stern said. The prevalence of under-age sexting is unclear and can often depend on the culture of a particular school or circle of students.
Boys and girls send photos in roughly the same proportion, the Pew survey found. But a double standard holds. While a boy caught sending a picture of himself may be regarded as a fool or even a boastful stud, girls, regardless of their bravado, are castigated as sluts. In contrast, when a boy sends a revealing photo of himself to a girl, Dr. Boyd noted, she usually does not circulate it. And, Dr. Policy makers are beginning to recognize that a uniform response to these cases does not fit.
Harris , an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, who is leading a study of the practice among adolescents to help develop policies to address it. There is the high-tech flirt. The troubled attention-seeker. Drunken teenagers horsing around. Pressure from a boyfriend. Malicious distribution. A teenager who barrages another with unsolicited lewd photos or texts.
The content of the photos can vary widely too, from suggestive to sadistic. Adults in positions of authority have been debating how to respond. Many school districts have banned sexting and now authorize principals to search cellphones. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 26 states have tried to pass some sort of sexting legislation since Fitzsimmons, a senior attorney at the National District Attorneys Association who specializes in Internet crimes against children.
But if the Lacey students were convicted of dissemination of child pornography, they could be sentenced to up to 36 weeks in a juvenile detention center.
They would be registered as sex offenders. Because they were under 15, however, after two years they could petition a court to remove their names from the registry, if they could prove they no longer posed a threat to the public. Rick Peters, the prosecuting attorney, never intended for the Chinook Middle School students to receive draconian sentences.
But he wanted to send a scared-straight message to them, as well as to the community. Yet when the local news media storm cascaded, the outcry was not about the severe penalties for a felony sexting conviction. It was about why Mr. Peters had not also arrested Margarite. Peters said. As far as she knew, that was as far as it would go. Eventually a deal was brokered for the three teenagers who were charged. The offense would be amended from the child pornography felony to a gross misdemeanor of telephone harassment.
Those three students would have to create public service material about the hazards of sexting, attend a session with Margarite to talk about what happened and otherwise have no contact with her. After Margarite and her mother approved the conditions, Mr. Peters signed off, pleased. I regret what I did more than anything but I cant take it back. Isaiah created a two-page brochure, citing studies from the Internet, accompanied by a tumble of adolescent feeling:.