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Middle school sexting sparks lessons for parents

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  • No CMS students charged with cyberbullying teachers
  • Do you know ...

    Here are some of the apps and sites Principal Jamie Brooks has learned about that can lead to digital misuse by youth.

    •  “Hide photo” apps: Marketed under a number of labels, these apps create a private cache for photos and videos, disguised with an icon that looks like something else and requires a password for access.

    •  Kik texting: Sends text messages from a user name, which can be false, rather than a phone number that can be traced.

    •  SnapChat: Allows users to share photos that quickly disappear. But recipients can take a screen shot, which allows the image to remain in circulation.

    •  Vine: An app that allows sharing of short video loops, which Brooks says is booming in popularity with adolescents.

    •  Ask.fm: A website that lets people ask each other anonymous questions.



It started this spring, with a father who caught his middle school son with a digital photo of a female classmate baring her breasts.

For Jamie Brooks, principal of Community House Middle School in south Charlotte, it turned into an exploration of how sophisticated technology abets adolescent recklessness. She learned about apps that help kids hide photos and pop songs that celebrate sexting.

She ended up with a long list of students – not only at her school, but at several public and private schools nearby – who had taken or shared inappropriate photos.

And she decided it was time to shock parents into awareness, with an ongoing program on digital monitoring that began in April and will continue in the coming school year.

Brooks’ message is at least as relevant during the summer, when students spend more time alone with their tablets, laptops and phones: Parents need to snoop, because kids can do a lot of damage with an impulsive click.

“I can’t be the social-media police,” Brooks said as the school year ended. “Mom and Dad have to be on top of it.”

Inappropriate use of digital media isn’t limited to Community House, a high-performing school located in one of Charlotte’s most affluent areas. As she started searching, Brooks quickly found questionable content posted by students in several local schools. Any student with an Internet connection is at risk of making bad judgments.

Suzanne Meeker is one of the Community House parents who was stunned by Brooks’ slideshow of area students – names and faces obscured – going online to talk dirty, act sexy, brag about drug use and make racist comments.

“It was truly shocking to know that your kids are doing this kind of thing,” she said. “The racism really got me. Kids are mimicking things they’ve seen on TV.”

School and home

Community House, which has almost 1,600 students, was one of the schools that rolled out Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ new “bring your own technology,” or BYOT, program last year. It’s part of a national movement to make sure students can tap into the digital resources they need for research and communication. CMS hopes to have all schools fully equipped with Wi-Fi in August.

Rumors circulated that the Community House sexting was part of a BYOT scandal. Brooks says that’s a misunderstanding, apparently spurred by her decision to ban personal devices during end-of-year testing and by an isolated incident of a student inappropriately using his smartphone on the school bus near the end of the year.

Kenneth Lynch, a CMS police detective who specializes in cyberissues, says the decision to let students bring their own devices to school made little difference in the number or type of incidents the department investigated.

The most egregious online misbehavior, including taking and circulating sexual photos, was already going on outside school, and that didn’t change, he said.

The CMS wireless network is restricted and monitored – though students with a data plan can shift to their own mobile Internet connection during school time. Brooks says her faculty started looking for that while students were using their devices in class.

When the father reported his son’s possession of the topless photo, Brooks called in the CMS police. She learned that it wasn’t considered child pornography because it wasn’t a genital shot.

The investigation concluded that there was no crime, and no evidence that the extensive circulation of topless photos among area teens was directly connected to school.

But there was plenty of cause for concern, Brooks says.

‘If you love me ...’

Starting with the original boy who had the photo and the girl who was in it, Brooks called students in to ask what was going on and who else was passing around sexual photos.

What she heard was a twist on the age-old “If you love me, you’ll do it” pressure – though in this case, “it” means sexting. She learned about pop music that promotes the idea. Taio Cruz’s “ Dirty Pictures” offers, “Whenever you are gone I just wanna be wit’ ya / Please don’t get me wrong I just wanna see a picture,” while “ Send Me a Picture” by Young Marqus suggests “Send it through a private link / I promise I won’t send it out.”

That’s generally what boys promise, Brooks said. But after a breakup, the photos start to circulate.

Brooks also learned about apps designed to help users hide photos from anyone who might check their phone. A search for “hide photos” on Apple’s App Store brings up 263 options, including some with icons designed to look like something else, such as a calculator. Only with a password are the stashed photos available – and some, as a backup, include decoy passwords that lead to something innocuous.

“They’re not just for kids,” Brooks said. “Cheating husbands are doing this, too.”

All-nighters and popularity

The more Brooks talked to students and did research, the more she learned.

She heard about Ask.fm, an online site where students flock to ask and answer anonymous questions. It often starts light, along the lines of “Who do you have a crush on?”, but can turn into cyberbullying when peers anonymously post ugly questions.

When Brooks looked for tweets and posts from students, she realized how much online activity was happening on school nights, long after students should have been asleep. Experts and teens told her how addictive it can be to get digital “likes” and responses, and how the devices often come back on after students have closed their doors and turned out the lights.

She talked to faculty and parents on the school leadership team: “We all decided that what we really needed was to educate the parents.”

April’s slide show, which drew about 150 parents, was designed to grab their attention by showing what students are doing online. In May, parents were encouraged to bring in their children’s devices, and a couple of young faculty members showed them how to look for signs of trouble. Parents who thought they were savvy got surprises. “It really changes daily,” Meeker said.

She instituted a technology curfew for her kids: By 10 o’clock on school nights, digital devices had to be handed over. The first night, the beeps of incoming messages kept going long past bedtime. After that, Meeker said, she learned to silence the devices.

Constant learning

Starting in August, Community House will bring in an FBI agent to talk about the most serious online dangers, a child psychologist to talk about the hazards of Internet addiction and a college admission officer to warn parents and kids about how reckless postings can come back to haunt them.

There’s also an ongoing “watch list” keeping parents apprised of apps and sites that could lead to trouble.

The push hasn’t been without controversy. Brooks says some parents think she’s being too intrusive, while others thought she should have punished the girls who exposed themselves (interestingly, she notes, no one said the same about boys circulating the photos).

It’s natural that parents will have differences of opinion about digital monitoring, just like other parenting issues. But Brooks and Meeker both say it’s vital to keep talking and learning.

“Especially in the middle school years, the kids want to be on their own and not ask permission. They can make bad decisions,” Meeker said. “We need parents to be together so we don’t feel like ‘the mean parent.’ ”

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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