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From texting to ‘sexting’ | Messages and images can be harmful and illegal

It started out as rumor. A harmless one, actually. But before she knew it, Jenny Lang was caught up in a mess of drama. Tears, broken friendships, blackmail. To think it all began with a simple text message.

According to a group of Mercer Island High School senior girls, bullying via text-messaging has become an increasing cause for drama at the high school. With cell phones in every back pocket, teenagers have discovered a new — not to mention quiet and instantaneous — way to spread gossip, rumors and taunt their peers.

“The last couple of days, I’ve turned my phone off, it’s been so bad,” said Lang, whose name was changed for anonymity, after explaining how a group of guy friends, irked that she would not let them throw a party at her parents’ house, ganged up on her via text-messaging.

“I got attacking messages from eight guys, over and over again. They told me I wouldn’t get invited to prom and all of this threatening stuff.”

Text-bullying, as the phrase has been coined, is the act of sending mean, defamatory or taunting text messages to others. These texts are effortlessly forwarded to others. Within a single lunch break, half the school could learn that “so-and-so is a loser.” Often, the humiliating messages are posted to online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace (cyber-bullying), so that teens have little immunity when they get home.

The issue is as prevalent on Mercer Island as it is across the country.

“So much drama. We’ve all come in crying to the counselors’ office because of texts,” a close friend of Lang said. “Sometimes I wish [the technology] didn’t exist at all.”

Indeed, cyber- and text-bullying have become so frequent among Island youth that the city and school district are taking action.

This week, School Resources Police Officer Art Munoz completed the Island’s first cyber-bullying awareness program.

Invited by Islander Middle School Principal Mary Jo Budzius, Munoz visited every 7th and 8th grade class, educating students about cyber-bullying and its consequences. He was accompanied by school counselors and administrators, all of whom are part of the solution.

“With today’s technology, bullying comes through [students’] computers and cell phones. It’s forwarded to Facebook or uploaded onto YouTube. It’s 24/7 and really invasive. A kid’s perception is that everyone knows about it,” said Harry Brown, a Youth and Family Services counselor who works full-time at IMS.

Together, Brown and Munoz discussed everything from cyber-stalking to “sexting” — the distribution of nude or risque self-portraits electronically — with students. Munoz showed each class a seven-minute educational DVD on cyber-bullying called “Let’s Fight it Together.” The U.K.-produced clip, created to appeal to a teenage audience, illustrates the emotional strife that a teenage boy goes through as the target of text-bullying. The clip deftly shows all sides of the problem, and how one teenager’s practical joke can become another teenager’s nightmare.

According to Brown, students have been openly receptive to the DVD’s message.

“I’ve had kids come forward and say, ‘I think I may be doing this.’ Lots of kids think it’s simply a joke. They are surprised that what they’re doing is hurtful or even against the law,” he said.

Indeed, naive actions can lead to serious reprimand.

Just last summer, two cheerleaders from Bothell High School were suspended from the squad for “sexting.” According to media reports, the teenagers texted nude photos of themselves to a few friends, who in turn sent them on to much of the student body. Once administrators got their hands on the digital photos, the girls were suspended from the cheer squad.

In some cases, when sexting crosses into the realm of child pornography, the punishment is much harsher. It is a point that Munoz was clear to make with IMS students.

“Kids need to know that sexting could be classified as child pornography. If someone’s under the age of 18 and nude photos are taken of them, there are legal ramifications,” the officer said. “I think kids were pretty surprised about that.”

But text messages do not have to be risque to be illegal. A strongly worded message can lead to criminal charges if it meets the Washington state definition of cyberstalking. According to RCB 9.61.260, “A person is guilty of cyberstalking if he or she, with intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person, and under circumstances not constituting telephone harassment, makes an electronic communication to such other person or a third party.”

“It’s a pretty broad definition,” said Brown. “A lot of kids don’t realize that what they are texting could be against the law.”

Munoz echoed this point.

“There’s a very fine line here. When you’re talking to someone directly and say something wrong or inappropriate, you can see their reaction. But when you type something through a text, you have no idea how the person will receive it. Sometimes, it comes across as harassing,” he said. “Kids also have to understand that with today’s electronics, almost everything can be traced or retrieved in one way or another.”

Before sharing this information with IMS students, Munoz and Brown spoke to their parents in a Feb. 11 meeting on cyber-bullying. About 25 people attended the discussion, Brown said. While many parents had already spoken to their children about the problem, others were hearing of the issue for the first time.

“It’s a whole spectrum of awareness; from parents who are super-sophisticated to those who have no idea how kids are using this media,” the counselor observed.

More than 90 percent of high school students carry cell phones to class, according to national statistics. Just as many visit online network sites — whether Facebook or MySpace — every day.

The Mercer Island School District acknowledges these facts and has, to some extent, even integrated the media into class curriculum. Yet there are rules too.

According to school policy, no student is allowed to use his or her cell phone while in class, except with permission from a teacher. Making phone calls is easy to catch. Texting, however, is not.

“It’s common knowledge to both teachers and students that kids are texting all the time,” said MIHS senior Genevieve Gebhart. “If it’s causing a disruption, a teacher may ask you to stop. Otherwise, it’s not usually a big deal.”

The same is true at IMS, according to Brown. The counselor has had a growing number of students speak to him personally about text-bullying at school. Although they may keep it from friends, teenagers are often devastated by the messages circulating among their peers. Brown wants students to know that there are resources to turn to.

“Part of our message is that kids can talk to us, and we’ll tell them the next step,” he said.

The counselor admits that text- and cyber-bullying is nearly impossible to control. But education, he emphasized, is the first step toward a solution.

“Our goal is to increase awareness,” Brown said. “In no way can we stop the use of technology; we just want students to use it in a proper way.”

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