By Jessica Farrish
It soon will be illegal for minors to sext in West Virginia.
Legislation signed May 6 by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin makes it a crime for youths to make, possess or distribute photos, videos or other media that show themselves or another minor in an inappropriate sexual manner.
The law goes into effect July 12.
The charge would be delinquency, but Amy Shuler Goodwin, director of communications for the governor, said the new law directs the Supreme Court to create an educational diversion program that, if it is completed, can lead to having the delinquency charge dropped.
Currently, teens who take, text or post photos of themselves or others can be charged under child pornography laws in the state.
“(Tomblin) signed the bill because he wanted to make sure our young kids had the information they needed and to keep them, honestly, from destroying their lives because of a huge, bad decision,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to have these conversations with our children.
“These electronic photos and language texts get quickly passed from one person to the next, and our kids don’t take into consideration consequences.
“This bill makes it very clear that juvenile sexting is illegal.”
Sexting — sending nude and/or sexually explicit images electronically — has become an epidemic in the United States, often with devastating results.
In Steubenville, Ohio, student athlete Trent Mays was found guilty of a felony charge of using a minor in nudity-oriented materials because he took and sent cell phone photos of an intoxicated West Virginia girl that he and Malik Richmond, a classmate, were found guilty of raping.
Also in Ohio, high school student Ryan Salyers accepted a nude photo from his girlfriend, 18-year-old Jessica Logan, then sexted the photo to at least four female friends.
Classmates bullied Logan with misogynistic names at Sycamore High School after they’d seen the photos.
Logan committed suicide in July 2008, and her mother, Cynthia Logan, successfully sued the Sycamore school district, Salyers and other students for sexual harassment.
The case shone a national spotlight on sexting in schools. Sexual harassment is illegal under federal Title IX guidelines.
“This case established that school districts can be liable if they fail to protect students from sexual harassment at school,” said Logan attorney Jennifer Branch.
“If they know a student is being harassed and do nothing to stop it, they can be sued for the injuries the student suffers as a result.”
Raleigh County Schools Director of Pupil Services Jeff McClung said bullying is taken very seriously under state code and in Raleigh County.
Even without the new criminal law, sexting would fall under the existing harassment and bullying guidelines in Raleigh County schools. It would also be counted as a misuse of a cell phone on school property, if the picture is published or taken at school, he said.
“A bullying policy would come into play and students would be suspended and interventions would take place,” he said.
Even if sexting at school isn’t a prevalent problem now, even one incident would be treated very strictly, according to McClung.
“We want our students to conduct themselves, not only on school property, but in life, in an appropriate manner,” he said. “Our main goal would be to help our students understand how wrong it is.”
McClung said school personnel would want to punish behavior but also to find out why a student is sexting.
“(Someone who sends a picture may be) trying to get someone’s attention in an inappropriate way,” he said. “The bottom line is finding out why they would be motivated to do that.
“When they share (inappropriate pictures of another student) with someone else, they’re trying to hurt that person, and that’s just inappropriate,” he said. “We want to make sure they get the appropriate consequences.”
Consequences would be determined on an individual basis, said McClung.
One concern in the new law is that it could punish a student who has sent a self picture and then been bullied once the photo was spread by classmates.
Goodwin said the law is aimed at prevention.
“I think it will make our children stop and think before doing it,” she said. “The conversation gives another good opportunity for parents to say you should not be sending, nor should you be receiving.
“It’s a clear message, black and white.”
She urged parents to talk to their children at a young age about the dangers of taking nude photos and sharing other personal information electronically.
McClung said a student who sends a self photo and is later bullied shouldn’t let the new law be a deterrent to reporting the sexual harassment to a parent or guardian.
“What I always teach is two wrongs never make a right,” he said. “You’ve got to do what’s right.
“Sometimes you have to take the consequences for your misbehavior. It’s how you grow, how you learn.”
At least 20 other states have similar laws, and teens in New Jersey and Virginia can be prosecuted on child pornography charges for sexting.