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.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.