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.

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting. 

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”