Three years ago, at a middle school in Wright County, Minnesota, students discovered sexually explicit pictures of a female student on her boyfriend’s cell phone. 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 the pictures many student cell phones had received them. 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, which is 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 can carry a sentence of one year or more in jail, or a minimum $3,000 fine—or both. Collateral consequences of a felony on a student’s record could include being barred from certain jobs or entering the military, and being denied acceptance to college or university.
As a result of this case, the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, the Court Services Department, and the County Attorney Office collaborated with the school district to develop the process currently used to handle sexting cases. This process uses community conferencing, diversion, and charging based on facts of each case. 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, is a face-to-face communication process 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 the process thusly:
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 forever floating on the Internet.
The conference resulted in an agreement that was made thorough consensus, with all participants signing it. In addition to a 3 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. 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.
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:
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.
School Climate Specialist
Minnesota Department of Education
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. Retrieved 8/21/2012 from http://www.cehd.umn.edu/ssw/rjp/PDFs/RJ_Dialogue_Evidence-based_Practice_1-06.pdf.
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.