Susquenita, PA, sexting case: A parent’s view

By Anne Collier

The day after the above blog post that mentioned the Susquenita sexting case, I heard from the father of one of the eight high school students involved. I’ll probably post more perspectives in future, but I’m starting with this one, this week, because 1) I think the perspective of a father – of a teen whose involvement sounds pretty typical of students caught up in such incidents – may be useful to other parents anwitd 2) this is the first case I’ve seen in the news where school officials are under investigation by a prosecutor for the way they handled the case.

“I am one of the parents involved in this issue,” wrote this father of a then-16-year-old. When school administrative staff [“head principal, two assistants, director of curriculum and the possibility of more,” he later told me] started their investigation the morning of Sept. 24, 2009, they knew then that they were dealing with students and nude pictures, but they continued this [investigation] all day long before contacting parents and police, even passing these phones around to other staff…. My son was interrogated by the head principal along with the director of curriculum. They called my son a sex offender, told him he would go to prison, and that he would be placed on Megan’s [sex offender] list. Then he was contained in the nurse’s office for over two hours. Other students were treated basically the same….

“My son along with [seven] other students [three girls and four boys] admitted they had a picture or pictures on their phones, etc. They told school staff who was in the pictures, etc., [but] the staff still went through [the phones]…. The principal told us he didn’t want to talk to the girl about this issue, saying ‘he felt uncomfortable’, though he didn’t mind viewing her pictures and others’ as well.” [By the sound of it, the police called in at the end of the school day were the best part of this experience, reportedly respectful and clear about the students’ rights and what was and wasn’t lawful about the school’s investigation – for example, a state trooper told the dad that he would need signed parental consent or a warrant signed by a judge to go through students’ cell phones. The law differs from state to state, but that’s something parents should ask if they’re ever in this position: Do school officials have the legal right to search their children’s phones without a warrant on school premises?]

“I have been fighting this battle for these kids since it happened on Sept. 24th,” the dad continued. “The district attorney offered a consent decree to all the students, involving probation, fines, and a few classes, and the felony charges were to be expunged when this [process] is completed. However, they still pursued the felony charges [he told me later that it’s still not clear the students’ records will be completely expunged]…. These kids were charged with felonies from a law [meant] to protect minors from adult predators. Pennsylvania doesn’t have a teen sexting law, although one is expected to pass soon. There needs to be a change to stop this destruction, not to mention the wrongdoing of the school. My question is, did any adult in this situation, from school to legal system, ever step back to have the best interest of these students at heart? No, they labeled and smeared these kids and families.”

When I asked him if there was any malice or bullying involved among the students, he said, “These kids did this willingly, they are friends. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone this, it was stupid, but they were basically keeping this private amongst themselves, meaning no harm…. I couldn’t even imagine,” he wrote, “being wrongfully charged with the worst type of charge anybody could face: sexual abuse of minors.”

All told, these students have experienced public humiliation, arrest (fingerprinting, mug shots, etc.), expulsion hearings before the school board, prosecution as adults, probation, fines, classes, and – as of this writing – the possibility of felony convictions remaining on their records, on top of whatever the students and families have dealt with privately over the past six months. Whatever happened at school last September 24, school officials do not seem to have been a support to them.

Meanwhile, 40 students involved in a sexting incident a week later in the next county over, at Chambersburg High School (involving a different prosecutor), did not receive felony charges (see here and here for background).

“The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has pushed legislation that would make sexting a second-degree misdemeanor. If convicted of a felony related to sexting, children can now be forced to register as sex offenders,” the Harrisburg Patriot News reported. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “In 2009, lawmakers in at least 11 states introduced legislation aimed at ‘sexting’.” In some of those states, that legislation is aimed at deterring and applying appropriate penalties to teens who engage in sexting, NCSL reports. Let’s hope the Pennsylvania legislature passes a teen sexting law soon and that it’s retroactive.

Related links

* My sexting primer for parents
* The best approach for schools to take (see “The goal of any incident investigation” at the bottom)
* “Sexting: New study & the ‘Truth or Dare’ scenario”

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