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.

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.

On track

This bill could help Colorado foster youth keep their school – and graduate – even when home changes

When she was a little girl, Gloria Mendez would dream of walking across a stage in a cap and gown to receive her high school diploma.

But when she went into foster care at the age of 15, already a mother herself, that dream got further and further out of reach. She was placed in a home in Greeley, separated from her brother and more than hour away from her school in Aurora. She changed homes and schools frequently. Each time, the credits and classes required to graduate changed.

“I was like, ‘OK, two or three more classes. Not a big deal.’ But then they move you again,” she said. “I needed two more credits, and I got to Denver, and they told me I needed three more years. I was already 18.”

At that point, she said, social workers and school counselors began to pressure her to get a GED instead. She told them: “I don’t want a GED. I want my high school diploma.”

Mendez is hardly alone: Youth in foster care in Colorado graduate from high school at a rate that’s abysmal — and falling, unlike the graduation rates of students from other vulnerable groups. Last year, just 23.6 percent of youth in foster care graduated on time, down 10 points since 2016. The statewide graduation rate is 81 percent.

People who work in child welfare have taken notice, convening a group that included teens in foster care to brainstorm ways to preserve schools as places of stability for children whose families are in crisis.

Now, lawmakers are moving toward putting some of those ideas into practice. A bill that passed a key committee this week aims to help students in foster care graduate on time by allowing more of them to stay in their home school and by providing flexibility around graduation requirements, regardless of where they’re enrolled.

The bill would require county child welfare officials and schools to work out transportation plans so that children can stay in their home schools when they go into foster care. It would make funding available to counties to work out solutions that make sense in their area, whether that’s contracting with ride-share services or paying mileage to foster parents or creating shuttle routes.

When children can’t stay in their home school, the bill would allow them to enroll immediately in a new school, without waiting for immunization records or academic records to transfer.

The bill would also allow districts to waive certain requirements or create alternative ways to meet requirements so that youth in foster care aren’t penalized for changing schools.

The bill is part of a package of legislation to address problems with the foster system, including providing foster parents with more information about the children in their care and extending services beyond the age of 18 for more people. That package represents Colorado’s effort to comply with 2016 federal rules requiring states to take additional steps to keep children in their home schools and to pay for transportation when necessary.

Those rules, part of the federal education law, didn’t come with new money, and it’s unclear whether Colorado will step up to fund the transportation requirements. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, asked for $2.9 million in the state budget, but members of the Joint Budget Committee declined to include that money in their budget proposal. They said they were open to adding it in later if the bill passes, and state child welfare officials said they’ll look for other funding if they need to.

After the bill passes the Democratic-controlled House, it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.

For now, the state’s 6,600 youth in foster care continue to rack up experiences that set them back in school. While students who are removed from their homes usually see their academic performance even out after a few months, their growth is often slower than other students who aren’t dealing with the trauma of instability, according to Kristin Melton, youth services manager in the state’s Division of Child Welfare

“If you are in a low-interest rate saving account and everyone else is in the stock market, you will never catch up and you will fall further and further behind,” Melton said.

Sister Michael Delores Allegri has been a foster parent to more than 70 children over 20 years. She said it’s often a challenge to even get kids enrolled in school in a timely manner.

“Even if you miss two weeks of high school, you’ve missed a lot,” she said. And then curriculum often doesn’t line up, or they can’t participate in sports or drama or whatever activity was their lifesaver in their home school.

“They lose their high school life, and because of that, they don’t engage,” she said. “We put obstacles in the kid’s way.”

The ability to earn a diploma can be incredibly meaningful to those who persevere, she said.

“Those kids who graduate from high school have that sense about themselves that nothing can stop them,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibility as adults to reach out and tell the kids, ‘I know you can do it, and I’m going to help you.’ It’s not that they don’t want to do it. They just get so discouraged.”

Mendez said she was embarrassed at times to be legally an adult and still in the foster system, still in high school – but she did eventually get her high school diploma. She “stumbled into” the Emily Griffith Technical College and met with a counselor who, for the first time in her high school career, really listened to what she wanted for herself.

The Emily Griffith school in downtown Denver offers GED courses along with a wide range of technical and vocational programs for adult students, and it also offers a standard high school track for adult students.

Mendez graduated in 2015, three years later than she would have if her academic career had stayed on track, and walking across the stage was every bit the accomplishment she dreamed of.

“It felt like, I proved you wrong,” she said. “No matter how many times you doubted me or pushed me to get a GED, finally being able to graduate and walk across that stage and having your high school diploma … all my hard efforts paid off.”

Kristina Smith, now 20, did manage to graduate on time, despite spending most of high school in a group home, but she said transportation help would have transformed her school experience. She had to walk 45 minutes to school and 45 minutes back every day, regardless of weather. All those hours spent walking, in the cold, in the dark, in the snow, and in the rain, often made her want to give up and made her feel like no one cared if she succeeded or failed – or even if she was safe.

She returned to her home school and her family during her senior year. At first she was excited, but the academics were a lot more challenging. She had to stop doing sports, which she had loved, to make it to graduation. Things shouldn’t have been that hard, she said.

Smith said she wants policy makers to know: “There are not that many things holding these kids back that can’t be fixed.”