How should schools handle sexting? Not like they are now, Denver professor says

Amy Adele Hasinoff, assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver.

The idea that it might be all right for teens to share sexually explicit cell phone photos is not exactly a commonly expressed belief.

Yet that is one of the arguments Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver, lays out in her 2015 book, “Sexting Panic.”

As long as the sharing of the pictures is consensual, Hasinoff doesn’t see sexting as the big problem it’s made out to be.

“We have to accept that teens are sexting,” she said. “When we get into 16- and 17-year-olds, 30 percent of them are sexting.”

The real problem with teen sexting, she says, is the tendency to blame the victim when sexts are shared without permission.

Chalkbeat sat down with Hasinoff to discuss how teen sexting should be addressed by the legal system, schools and parents. She also provides tips for parents and educators on her web page.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book is called “Sexting Panic.” Who is doing the panicking?

Everyone is doing the panicking. Parents, teachers, legislators, prosecutors, school principals…I’m not sure if teens are panicking.

The root of the panic is totally legitimate because people can harm each other with technology in completely new ways, which are at the same time very similar to the ways they could harm each other before. Adults are panicking because it’s newly visible to them.

Maybe before cell phones, if an intimate partner broke your trust, you might just be called a slut by everyone at school. It’s likely that adults would never find out about it.

But now with sexting, the same kind of thing happens, someone violates someone’s trust, and instead of them getting called a slut, they also have this photo circulating, which also leads to more harassment problems in the school and the parents and the teachers can find out about it because there’s this physical evidence.

But you argue that as a society, we’re focusing on the wrong culprit when sexting comes to light?

The problem is that people are going back to the victim of that violation and saying, “You shouldn’t have been sexting.” But what I think people need to focus on instead is the violation, and not the victim’s behavior.

Now, we’re saying, “You should have known better” or “Why did you trust that guy?” and that’s like saying to a rape victim, “Why were you out past midnight?”

I think most of us know that that’s a ridiculous thing to say. Being out past midnight doesn’t mean you should get raped.

A lot of adults panic about teen sexting because they’re focusing on this new technology, but what they’re forgetting is this is a broader societal problem with domestic violence and sexual assault. And I would put (sexting-related) violations of privacy in that category. It’s a form of intimate partner violence. I think we need to take it very seriously.

Right now teen sexters are often charged under child pornography laws and can end up on sexual offender registries. Why do you argue for the decriminalization of consensual teen sexting?

The main reason is because when sexting is a crime, it’s a crime for the victim and the perpetrator. That’s the problem with those laws. It criminalizes the victim and it shames the victim.

It’s like making dating illegal to try to prevent sexual violence. So saying, “Dating is just dangerous because a certain percentage of people will be sexually assaulted by their dates…Let’s just make dating illegal so we can stop this problem of date rape.”

That doesn’t make any sense.

Are there other problems with current laws on sexting?

Parents who are upset about who their kid is dating can use these laws against their kid. So, if you’re a parent and your kid is gay and you’re not happy about that, you can pick up their phone and look at their images and you can submit that as evidence to police.

There’s all of these racial and gender dynamics that go into it. It becomes a tool for parents to express their prejudices.

What did you think about last year’s proposed law that would have made sexting a misdemeanor in Colorado?

I was not in support of it. It was going to be pretty similar to laws that have passed in other states but I think those laws are the wrong approach. They’re very similar to child pornography laws in that the victim and the perpetrator are committing the same crime.

(Colorado’s proposed law) criminalized consensual sexting.

They were arguing it would protect teens because (it would make sexting) a misdemeanor and child pornography is a felony. They still want to send a message that sexting is wrong, dangerous and illegal and you shouldn’t do it.

How did Colorado’s legal landscape around sexting pan out in the high-profile teen sexting episode in Canon City schools last year?

In Canon City, the prosecutors probably would have loved to charge everyone with a misdemeanor. So what ended up happening is they didn’t charge anyone because child porn laws are too harsh. Had they had the option for a misdemeanor, my guess is victims, perpetrators and bystanders would have all been charged indiscriminately.

The only reason no one got charged is because they’re like, “Oh felony. That’s crazy. We can’t charge everyone with a felony.”

What kinds of policies should schools have about sexting?

The policies that I’ve seen that are written and available are like, “Don’t sext. Don’t go online. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t participate.”

But you can’t really stop (students) from participating, whether that’s sexting, posting a blog, being on social media. This abstinence approach to technology is just not going to work.

It doesn’t really help anyone to say, “You can’t sext” because you have that victim-blaming problem. If I’m the victim of a privacy violation, why would I go talk to the counselor or principal about that violation if I know that I not only violated the law, but I violated the school’s technology policy or cell phone policy? I’m going to hide my injury.

I don’t think you need a policy saying, “Don’t sext.” It’s already illegal. Just have policies that address the harm that can happen—the privacy violations, the harassment.

How does sexting usually pan out?

Your nightmare scenario that your photo ends up online publicly is actually very rare.

Lots of people sext and nothing goes wrong. As a teacher or parent, if your kids are sexting and nothing goes wrong, you’re not going to know about it…They’re not going to say “Oh we sexted and nothing happened. It was fun. We were flirting and then he deleted the photos and I deleted the photos and now we’re broken up and everything’s fine.”

You’re never going to hear that story. You’re going to hear the story of someone violating someone’s privacy.

What else do schools need to do?

You have to design your school climate and community knowing that sexual harassment and sexual assault are going to happen and you should try to find ways to get students and teachers talking and thinking about that before it happens.

If 30 percent of your kids are sexting and research is showing that between 10 and 20 percent of those will experience a privacy violation, it’s happening at your school. The question is do you want to be reactive or proactive?
If you want to be proactive, you need to deal with slut shaming, rape myths, bullying and harassment.

Best-case scenario. You look at sexting and say “This is a problem. Where did it come from?” Let’s start there. Let’s have one session a month where we talk about slut shaming with the students and work on ways to fight that. That’s something that everyone participates in—girls and boys and teachers and principals.

What kinds of educational programs take a proactive approach to sexual violence and harassment?

One program—”Coaching Boys into Men”— focuses on athletes because often, not always, male-only athletic spaces can become very sexist very quickly. This program focuses on coaches as mentors and they deliver this sort of re-education: “Let’s think about gender norms, let’s dismantle these rape myths, let’s get away from slut-shaming.”

I don’t think a school needs an anti-sexting program. What they need is sexual assault prevention that’s evidenced-based and that works.

What message would you give a teenage relative about sexting?

The advice for sexting is the same advice for having sex: Think about who you can trust.

Figuring out who you can trust…that’s an ongoing project for all of us. It’s not unique to teenagers. If parents are wondering what to talk about with their teens, that’s one thing.

Also, you have to learn how to negotiate consent. You don’t want to be violating someone’s privacy, but you also don’t want to be sending someone a photo they don’t want. So, just like you shouldn’t kiss someone without figuring out that they want you to kiss them. You shouldn’t send someone a (sext) without figuring out that they actually want that. That consent thing is so important especially when you’re starting a new relationship.


Are there parallels between teen sexting and earlier trends that had adults similarly alarmed?

(With) every new media technology, there’s been a panic about girls and sex.

Ten years ago, we were panicking about online predators and girls blogging and posting stuff on social media. The panic about online predators was completely overblown because statistically, you’re going to be harmed by someone you know.

The online predator myth was this idea that predators would see girls online…and would then stalk these girls and assault them in real life, which has happened, but is really uncommon.

Our solution to that in 2005 were these girl power self esteem campaigns that were like, “Don’t post your address online. Don’t post your photo online.” They would have advice like “Have a gender neutral screen name.”

So that’s our solution to violence against women? Like, “We can’t help you, just hide.” That’s really depressing to me.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.