Sexting Policies in Schools


I have been thinking a lot recently about formal policies related to sexting that all middle schools and high schools should have enacted by now. However, I am finding that many districts have not yet detailed in their discipline codes exactly what it is, how it will be investigated, who will be involved, and what will happen to those who participate. This is unfortunate because experience shows us that when formal policies and procedures have not kept pace with the rapid changes of technology and their use by kids and teens, school administrators struggle when attempting to correct wrongful behavior.

We have to make sure that clear guidance and direction is available when a sexting case comes to the attention of school administrators. Moreover, in order to ensure compliance with response protocols and to avoid legal pitfalls, administrators have to be proactive. They must specifically review and improve current policies and procedures before a situation arises, develop new policies in concert with technology specialists and law enforcement agencies, and communicate such policies to educators, staff, and students at their school.

In considering the elements that should make up a comprehensive and tight sexting policy, we have come up with the following advice:

It should specifically define that sexting primarily involves the sending and receiving of naked or semi-naked photos or videos via cell phone.

It should highlight that such images and videos often constitute child pornography, and that creating them, possessing them, or transmitting them is a felony offense subject to criminal prosecution. That is, students who send a naked or semi-naked picture of themselves to others are subject to punishment. In addition, students who disseminate naked or semi-naked images of other students are also subject to punishment. Finally, students who receive a naked or semi-naked image of another student needs to report the incident to a counselor or principal immediately.

It should detail who all will be involved in the investigation and response (e.g., administrators, law enforcement, the parents of all students involved).

It should state that in many cases, student cell phones can be searched by administrators if they have reasonable suspicion that a student has been involved in the behavior – and, of course, for any other suspected school policy violation directly related to the use or contents of the device. That said, there are some cases where teachers and administrators in public schools are viewed as agents of government – especially since the behavior in question could be a felony. Therefore, the standard of probable cause would apply. (This is a very contentious topic which we will flesh out in the future.)

It should articulate a range of punishments that will result for those who engage in sexting.

It should assert increased penalties for any bullying, blackmail, extortion, or threats that stem from, or are related to, sexting incidents.

It should include a clause which provides discretion to administrators and school law enforcement who deal with these cases, especially since sexting appears to occur along a continuum ranging from “stupid teen behavior,” to problematic girlfriend/boyfriend relationships, to sexting involving intentional exploitation, to intentional self-exploitation – which involves youth who brazenly and willingly flaunt and advertise themselves online in a sexual manner (thanks to Nancy Willard for pointing this out).

Please let me know if you think we are missing anything, or if you have any other thoughts towards this end based on your experience. We want to be clear that this is a work in progress, both because the research concerning sexting is still emerging and because the law is not well established. Also know that we are not giving legal advice in this blog, and that educators should always consult their school attorneys for guidance to ensure these cases are handled appropriately.


  1. "It should specifically define that sexting primarily involves the sending and receiving of naked or semi-naked photos or videos via cell phone."

    Contradiction. "Specifically define," "primarily involves"

    "It should state that in many cases, student cell phones can be searched by administrators"

    4th Amendment please.

    If you also want to check out the Tinker vs Des Moines case and supreme court justice, Abe Fortas said "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Meaning that while one is on a school campus, all of their constitution rights are still in place, meaning the 4th amendment still applies, and they cannot be searched without a search warrant.

    I would also like to throw one last thing out there; 99% of texting occurs outside of school. In the past few years of my schooling from 4th-8th grade (when I've had a phone) I've sent thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of text messages. And have probably only sent 50 to 100 during school hours. The schools shouldn't be spending tax dollars on something a parent should be taking care of and that happens outside of school.

    In my opinion, if someone decides to take pictures of themselves whilst half naked or naked and decide to send them to their "boyfriend," they should be responsible and know that it may get passed around.

  2. I disagree with many items from anonymous based on my decades of experience as a California high school teacher, grades 9-12. Students are texting in school and all day long, though it is against policies. They do so in the bathrooms, in the locker rooms, in the hallways between classes, among the many times they text. They do not even need to use the Internet with a couple of the software programs now available, where they can send images by shaking their phones into whole rooms of students. I do not wish to state how, as I do not want this out there for more students to learn, but it is happening. Some photos are being taken while students change for PE, or while they use the restroom stalls, between cracks in bathroom doors for example. They are also photoshopping, putting some faces on other photos to damage the reputations of students, so it is not quite what is stated in the above comment. And the culture is to keep it quiet, not my idea, but in general, which I would not.

    If a teacher suspects sexting, how does a teacher keep a student in a classroom with the "evidence" when the period ends? I know no one is giving legal advice here, but I sense many districts like my own will continue to discuss cyber safety with young students while seemingly ignoring all that happens, not even researching what happens in our own communities.

    One of my experiences was that after I reported something by cell phone camera, did the right thing and wrote it up and held onto the students until security then an SRO arrived, police reports made, that the district attorney refuses to prosecute, so then as a teacher I become the "bad guy" and students act up more for that individual teacher, me, and the teacher is viewed as having poor classroom management skills. My situation was not sexting, but rather one student hit another student and uploaded onto You Tube. The students said they didn't know it was wrong. Ha! I can see the odds of prosecution even lower in the case of sexting and unclear district policies, making a teacher wonder if she should report it at all.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    Recall that Tinker addresses the issue of free speech and expression, not search (and few would agree with your reading that Tinker allows all forms of speech at school – Tinker (and subsequent caselaw) clearly highlights numerous examples where speech can be restricted by educators (not least of which when the speech substantially and materially disrupts learning). One could certainly argue that sexting is a form of expression that would indeed disrupt learning.

  4. On a practical level and I would not, but students are searched without warrants. Schools are getting around the search and seizure issue because they ask students to hand over their cell phones. While students have the right to refuse to hand them over or to show their backpacks, they seldom know their rights nor assert them, or sometimes simply do not wish their parents called into the situation. Most local campuses have police officers on campus (SROs) so depending on what else is happening on campus, the search issue may actually be valid. When student phones are searched, they frequently have pre-paid ones tough to track because they have no credit histories to obtain contracts. I momentarily stepped outside my room before a search was to occur last spring and the phone mysteriously appeared in the trash. I have not heard of anyone ever legally prosecuted for sexting very locally, not everywhere, though there have been suspensions over it, possibly expulsions. Just wished to share a glimpse of it from the classroom perspective.

  5. I don't see why everybody hates it. Sure, it's a distraction and a bit wrong, but as long as the students aren't having sex, I don't see why there's a problem

  6. I'm torn on this issue – I most definitely believe that sexting is wrong and inappropriate, but we aren't banning pencils and papers although students write lewd notes to each other. I think the first step is for educators (and others) to continue learning how this generation communicates in order to gain further understanding. One blog post I recently read discussees how coaches can better understand social media. I know most educators aren't coaches, but same ideas apply to people new to the field.

  7. Read this site's materials and book on cyberbullying through electronic media. Do you really not see the difference between sending an electronic message from on campus or off of the school grounds for that matter and papers and pencils? Students create websites with my high school's name on it. Other students "like" it ona popular social program, and their parents may not be their friends or may not even think twice about it. One post could go out to 4,000 students, former students and community members, then the damage is done. We might not be able to track a post due to shutting down websites and others appear, free e-mail addresses used and throw away cell phones or computer rentals with stolen credit cards taken from other students on our own campus, that students purchase these cell phones at times to "slam" former people they date who do not "put out" or may take random photos on campus of students changing clothes for PE class in a locker room for all to see which then go viral. Four or more of our high schools locally have had people from the community walk into a water polo match, take photos on their cell phones of the boys team and post them on unregulated gay porn websites out to make a buck then these same photos go around to numerous people, when we want to encourage student athletes. The lack of clear guidelines has not truly changed and while I am not providing any legal counsel and could not do so, merely sharing from one teacher's point of view. I am one who uses all types of electronic media. The cyber safety workshops given to very young people on not providing data online before technology became so advanced totally misses the mark. Or, that a few teachers might be told to report sexting in one quick line in the beginning of the year, if that, is absolutely inadequate to prepare us for what is or may be happening. It is horrible to live with some of these matters, especially for the children who may lack other healthy developmental assets to deal with all of this, like caring adult figures in their lives. And when I want to know about how to override any blocked programs on campus, I can always count on a student to tell me the latest code to override and enter these programs, as hundreds know them yet no one says who creates them about weekly. I know some people are sharing what it looks like to them, so maybe I will add a little. We are already running our own websites as required by our high school and have students explain what a Facebook page might look like from Shakespeare or other character's point of view, giving extra credit to the first person who might answer a question electronically that requires extra research, sending out daily Tweets and messages about campus happenings and e-mailing graded assignments to lists that continually are updated with changing families, but we are talking about bullying here and it needs to be taken seriously and educators everywhere may not even be aware or some do not have policies on all kinds of electronic activities, including sexting, and we need to address this issue, sooner rather than later.

  8. Sexting is a problem in America yet kids still do it. They know what could happen to them if they send the pictures. Therefore if they are willing to take the risk them let them do it. If they are willing to trash their own lives, then by all means go right ahead. It is the persons choice to do it. And since we always hear about new laws being made for what happens if you do sext someone, the person who is about to send that naked picture of them should know that they are taking a risk. They should be aware that in the end everyone could be able to see these photos and they could get in trouble for it, or they could get others in trouble for it. Is sexting wrong? Yes it is. But in the end we must realize that the people who do it should know what could happen if they do it. And if the next day everyone saw them in that naked photo it's their own fault and they shouldn't try to blame someone else for their mistake

  9. i think this is bullshit. everyone is always saying what us teens are doing wrong or how we are being inapproiate.etc.

    but everything around us is very sexual! its hard enough to have to avoid bad behavior in school but its also on the internet,magizines(models),books,tv,even in the cartoon shows.

    so even though many teens are sexting more teens are being more daring an getting invovled in sex. I know its not what our parents would want but in our mind a pic is harmless cuz its only a pic!

    an it may be hard for many to believe that maybe their teen likes the attention of being wanted.

  10. i agree tina. Plus adults always say you can't do this, or you can't do that. our parents can not control our sex lives! we r people to with raging horomnes. its unaccetpable how everyone hates us we need their HELP the most. sexting is a problem but we feel its an alternate to having sex. if you wanna solve a problem start with the source the mass muitibillion dollar sex advertising industry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Thanks for posting this helpful advice, Sameer. A couple of thoughts occurred as I read it:

    1. Glad you suggest that a school policy should "detail who all will be involved in the investigation and response (e.g., administrators, law enforcement, the parents of all students involved)." But why don't you include a school counselor of psychologist? Once a "sext" gets widely distributed, the emotional penalties have already kicked in for students publicly identified as parties to what the law calls a crime. As a parent, I'd want psychological support for the students involved!

    2. I'm sure you've seen the new sexting typology from the Crimes Against Children Research Center (link defunct). I'd cite that! Here's the range of behaviors it factors in, based on actual cases in two categories:

    Experimental:defined by the CACRC as incidents in which “youth took pictures of themselves to send to established boy‐ or girlfriends, to create romantic interest in other youth, or for reasons such as attention‐seeking, but there was no criminal behavior beyond the creation or sending of images, no apparent malice, and no lack of willing participation by youth who were pictured.”

    Aggravated: incidents involving “criminal or abusive elements beyond the creation, sending or possession of youth‐produced sexual images.” The additional elements include either adult involvement or criminal or abusive behavior by minors. The latter might include 1) sexual abuse, extortion, threats; 2) malicious conduct arising from interpersonal conflicts; or 3) creation or sending or showing of images without the knowledge or against the will of a minor who was pictured.

    Wrote about this briefly here:

    Thanks again.

  12. My son just got caught exchanging nudes he is 13 his phone got confiscated from the principle is he allowed to do keep the cell phone or what should I do?

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