Restorative Group Conferencing and Sexting: Repairing Harm in Wright County Cyberbullying Research Center


Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Nancy Riestenberg, who works for the Minnesota Department of Education. In it, she discusses an innovative approach used to address the harm that results from sexting images that are distributed beyond the originally intended recipient.

Nancy Riestenberg
School Climate Specialist, Minnesota Department of Education

Three years ago, in a middle school in Wright County, Minnesota, students discovered sexually explicit pictures of a student on the cell phone of her boyfriend.  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 them, many student cell phones had received the pictures. 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, 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 could carry a sentence of one year or more in jail and a minimum $3000 fine or both.  Collateral consequences of a felony on a student’s record could include being barred from certain jobs, entering the military and being accepted to college or university.

As a result of this case, the Court Services Department, Sheriff’s Office, and the County Attorney Office collaborated with the school district to develop the process currently used to handle sexting cases in Wright County. The process uses community conferencing, diversion and charging based on facts of the cases. 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 are a face to face communication processed 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 process:

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 being forever floating on the Internet.

The conference results in an agreement that is made thorough consensus and all participants sign it. In addition to a three 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. Everyone signed the agreement. 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.

1.    County-wide, age appropriate education. Presentations on sexting, the law and its consequences are presented at the middle and high school levels.  Presenters include a county probation office, a school social worker, county social worker and the restorative justice agent. Some schools developed ad campaigns designed by the students to educate their peers and parents.  Presentations have also been made to parent groups.

2.    Policy regarding cell phones and investigations.  School policy regarding cell phones bans them in class; if a phone is found to have sexually explicit pictures on it, the Sherriff’s deputy takes the phone, conducts an investigating, and sends the investigation to the Sherriff’s office.  The pictures are captured as evidence.  The Deputy deletes the pictures.

3.    Diversion or charges.  The sergeant in charge of the juvenile and sexual predator unit recommends diversion or charges to the County Attorney. Diverted cases go to the Restorative Justice Agent for conferencing. A student is considered for diversion if he/she has no prior offenses, is not on probation, and if there are no extenuating circumstances. If a student receives an image and deletes it, the sheriff’s deputy will speak with the student and the parents, giving information on how to make cell phones more secure from such images.

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:

  • It gives all those involved a chance to provide input, including school officials;
  • It allows the perpetrator/victim to accept responsibility, but also to acknowledge the harm they experienced; and
  • It holds individuals accountable without damaging his/her future.

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.

References:

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.

Wright County Court Services, www.co.wright.mn.us. Michael J. MacMillan, Director mike.macmillan@co.wright.mn.us; Brian Stoll, Probation Officer, Brian.Stoll@co.wright.mn.us.

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