Wayland High School Principal John Ritchie issued a community letter on
Wednesday acknowledging sexting is a more pervasive issue at the school than
"The practice of sending sexually suggestive or explicit messages or pictures-is in fact far more commonplace at Wayland High School than we'd realized, and indeed far more commonplace in the world of teenagers than we'd realized," Ritchie wrote.
The letter comes days after Matt Ivester gave a lecture on about the dangers and benefits of social media and communications for teenagers.
To be clear, Ritchie said the goal of the letter was not to launch an investigation, but to better education the Wayland community.
"Our first priority was to share the information we have with you, and then work together to come up with appropriate, purposeful, and thoughtful responses. However difficult the conversations might be, it seems important that you try to talk to your son or daughter about privacy, intimacy, and what they may or may not be doing with their various devices. As I said earlier, our role is educational, not investigative, and we look forward to developing ways to help our young people negotiate the very tricky waters of life in the year 2013," Ritchie wrote.
FULL TEXT OF THE LETTER IS BELOW
Dear Parents or Guardians:
Wayland High School recently hosted a guest speaker named Matt Ivester, who made two presentations to the Wayland student body about the dangers and potential benefits of technology and social media, with an emphasis on one's online reputation: how it can be permanently damaged, how it can be repaired or corrected, and how to avoid decisions made on the spur of the moment which can have long term and negative consequences.
Whether it was by coincidence or not we don't know, but immediately preceding and then following Matt’s presentation, we became aware in conversations with students that the phenomenon called sexting--the practice of sending sexually suggestive or explicit messages or pictures-is in fact far more commonplace at Wayland High School than we'd realized, and indeed far more commonplace in the world of teenagers than we'd realized.
I suspect we've all read about sexting, but we hadn't grasped either how common it seems to be, or how casually accepted it is. One student told us that while it seems slightly less prevalent this year than in recent years (who knows why), he described the significant numbers of Wayland High School boys who have saved pictures on their phones or computers of provocative-at least-pictures of Wayland High School girls. What was additionally striking about what seemed a thoroughly credible report was his claim that sexting is something that students don't see as a particular problem. It isn't seen as a big deal. It is apparently a fairly common and accepted reality that a young woman will (under who knows what forms of coercion) provide pictures of herself to a boyfriend. And understood and accepted as well that a boyfriend who receives them will share those pictures with friends.
Obviously, the conversations and information described above are vague and general. How common? How widely accepted? So I looked again at the Metrowest Adolescent Health Survey results for WHS from 2012, the last time the survey was administered. In the survey, students confidentially and anonymously answer questions about various risky behaviors. 52 WHS students report that they "sent a sext of yourself" in the last twelve months. 120 students report that they "received a sext of someone you know." When you think about it, it's hard to imagine that the 120 students who report having received a sext didn't share it, which would suggest very large numbers of WHS students have seen pictures of their friends or classmates that have been widely disseminated.
I then looked at an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin from 2010 that found that "20 percent of teenagers (22 percent girls and 18 percent boys) sent naked or seminude images of themselves or posted them online." Twenty per cent of the Wayland student population is 170 students, and this report was from three years ago.
Paul Stein, Allyson Mizoguchi, Scott Parseghian, Marybeth Sacramone, and I sat down to try to make sense of this disturbing local and national phenomenon, and to try to ponder ways in which we might work with the community to respond in thoughtful and healthy ways to this disturbing situation. It's interesting to note that these data about the pervasiveness of sharing intimate pictures and messages have been available to all of us all along, but they gained intensity and meaning when put in the context of an actual community of students, this one, with students whom we know well, and of whom you are the parents or guardians.
It's really a challenge to think of ways that the school and community can work together to address this widespread social phenomenon. In general, it is not the school's business what goes on in the privacy of a student's smart phone-unless it impacts that person's emotional well-being, or disrupts the school in some way. But it is our business to alert students to the fact that what they might have thought was private, really isn't. Case in point: we now know that this is a pretty widespread and widely accepted practice among Wayland High School students, and I'd bet that students might be surprised and dismayed to learn that school administrators--and now parents-have become aware of what felt at the time to be very intimate sharing.
Our goal here is not to launch an investigation, or to embarrass young people by "getting the facts" and making them public in any way. Clearly, we have to continue our efforts to promote healthy relationships, and we have to find ways to be available to counsel students whose reputations have been impaired, or whose feelings have been hurt by having intimate details of their lives shared. However much students claim that this is "no big deal," it is unimaginable that there isn't a lot of private damage that results from students being asked to, or coerced into, or expected to, as the FBI report puts it, "send naked or semi-nude images of themselves or post them online." Then, of course, there is the disturbing matter of students deciding to share those images-presumably thought to be private-with friends. While it might be highly unlikely, the truth is that one can be charged under child pornography law for being in possession of pictures of underaged individuals.
Our first priority was to share the information we have with you, and then work together to come up with appropriate, purposeful, and thoughtful responses. However difficult the conversations might be, it seems important that you try to talk to your son or daughter about privacy, intimacy, and what they may or may not be doing with their various devices. As I said earlier, our role is educational, not investigative, and we look forward to developing ways to help our young people negotiate the very tricky waters of life in the year 2013.