WYPR News
12:45 pm
Thu April 3, 2014

Why Middle School Sexting Is Not Considered Child Porn In Maryland

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 11:47 am

Why Middle School Sexting Is Not Considered Child Porn In Maryland

Recently, a group of Anne Arundel County middle school girls sent nude photos of themselves to boys who distributed them; one person is believed to have posted them on an Instagram site. Yet no one was charged with a crime and it’s unclear whether school authorities disciplined anyone.

In contrast, a dozen Missouri middle school students were suspended from school recently for texting nude images of their classmates.  Police are investigating whether the students violated Missouri’s sexting laws.   In Pennsylvania, state police issued criminal citations last week to eight teenage boys who texted nude images of themselves to girls.

That leads to questions about Maryland’s laws on sexting and child pornography. What are the consequences for sharing inappropriate images?

The images showed up on Instagram with the initials CBMS—Chesapeake Bay Middle School in Pasadena—and derogatory tag lines “hoes” and “thots,” short for 'that hoe over there.' School resource officers passed them along to police headquarters, where investigators decided they didn’t meet Maryland’s definition of child pornography. Lt. J. D. Batten, who is in charge of all the county’s school resource officers, explains that under the Maryland law, mere nudity doesn’t amount to pornography. “They have to be engaged in an actual sexual act,” he says.

It’s unclear what, if anything, happened to the students involved. Bob Mosier, Anne Arundel schools’ spokesman, said in an e-mail he would not detail “the nature of any disciplinary action” other than to say any action school officials took “was warranted and appropriate.”

The county’s Code of Student Conduct applies only to incidents on school property, during a school sponsored event or if a student is charged with a crime that presents a safety hazard to other students. And because no one was charged with a crime and there’s no evidence to show the incident occurred on school grounds, the Anne Arundel County school system cannot discipline the students.

Meanwhile, child pornography and sexting laws differ from state to state. And while seventeen states have anti-sexting laws, Maryland has none.   Batten says the consequences here aren’t the legal kind.  “Many students have learned the hard way,” he says.  “The issue is if what they sent was not illegal, just embarrassing, there’s nothing the police department can do.”

Batten adds that some students find themselves in extreme situations, which “can lead some people to suicidal thoughts.” In some cases, Batten says the student who sent the message is harassed and other students use the photos against them for blackmail.

Justin Patchin, the co-director of the cyber-bullying research center at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, says that’s why school officials need to do more. “There are a lot of issues going on there and there are a lot of services needed now,” he says. “There’s a disruption at the school,” Patchin adds. “I would think the school would have an obligation to investigate.”

He says the students who sent the images can be targets of gossip and harassment, usually on social media. It’s a form of cyber-bullying.

Maryland’s updated anti-cyber bullying law went into effect last fall. But prosecutors say some restrictions make it difficult to enforce. At the same time, there is a revenge porn bill making its way through the General Assembly.

Anne Colt Leitess, Anne Arundel’s State’s Attorney, says those laws are important. But she doubts tougher child pornography laws are the answer to the sexting problem among middle- and high-schoolers.  “I don’t think prosecuting twelve-year-olds for pornography is the solution,” she says. “Calling it porn and putting them in jail isn’t the answer.”

Leitess says young people and their parents need to discuss these kinds of issues and the damage that can be caused. “If a young girl sends it to a boyfriend, she has no control over it.  The image can be sold. What started out as a flirtation can become a nightmare," Leitess points out. Like many others, she says, some young people don’t think before they hit “send,” and they can’t get it back.

Tags: