ST. CLAIRSVILLE - United States Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II said school students involved in sexting run the risk of leaving a "digital footprint" that may lead to a jail cell- and may adversely affect their ability to get a job or be accepted into college.
Ihlenfeld, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, has led the way in efforts to educate students and parents about the dangers and misuse of social media outlets. However, sexting - legally defined as the sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages via a mobile phone - has continued to become an issue in the area.
The activity surfaced last week at St. Clairsville High School when Belmont County Prosecutor Dan Fry brought in the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to delve into a case involving a double-digit amount of students. BCI will conduct forensic testing on at least 20 cellphones confiscated from at least 20 students.
Fry said investigations into child pornography are complex, with much depending on whether the facts line up with evidence proving allegations involving a minor in a state of undress.
"The chain of evidence may be developed by confiscating cellphones through permission or a search warrant, computers or any device where information may be stored on email servers or on any electronic device," he said. "We also can look at phone records or gather information from witnesses."
He said child pornography by definition is any circumstance where minors are shown in a state of undress.
"Anybody, whether they are a minor or an adult, can be prosecuted if they are in possession of child pornography, if they transmit it over any media or if they manufacture it by taking pictures of themselves or of another person," he said.
In cases where high school students are over the age of 18, they are adults and will be prosecuted as such.
"Child pornography charges may be a second degree felony punishable by up to eight years in prison for an adult," Fry said. "Juveniles facing similar charges are processed through juvenile court and there is a different sentencing structure."
Fry said parents are the front line of defense against lewd or unlawful activity by their children.
"I strongly encourage parents to be vigilant in monitoring their children's activities on cellphones and all social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter or any other," he said. "They need to know all passwords and check them regularly - and their children need to know their parents are watching."
Ohio state law provides that local school districts must educate students on anti-bullying policies but does not address the sexting issue.
Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said Ohio is a local control state, which allows the local school board, administration and community members to make educational decisions that best fit their local communities.
"The Ohio Department of Education encourages school districts to promote to their students the appropriate, ethical and effective use of technology," he said.
St. Clairsville-Richland School Superintendent Walter Skaggs said students are allowed to bring cellsphones to school, but they must adhere to school rules.
"We have an acceptable use policy for any of our in-school networks or computers and also a "bring your own technology" policy for students who bring their own technology to school," he said. "Any student who brings in a cellphone, tablet, laptop or any similar device must sign a BYOT acceptable use form. Sexting would be considered an unacceptable use."
Skaggs said students who violate the acceptable use policy are subject to punishment ranging from loss of the use of technology for a period of time to more severe appropriate discipline.
He said each student is given a BYOT form at the beginning of each school year. The policies are reviewed in homeroom classes to make sure students understand them. The forms also are sent home and must be returned signed by a parent or guardian.
Additionally, Skaggs said the district holds an annual meeting with parents during the first full week of school to discuss social media and Internet safety.
"We continue to provide available resources for parents and students to educate them on the pitfalls of social media," he said.
Across the river in Ohio County, Superintendent Dianna Vargo said students are permitted to bring cellphones to school, but they must adhere to federal and state laws deal with the sexting issue.
"In the Ohio County Schools, we use a variety of means to assist students with understanding and using technology appropriately," she said. "Ohio County schools have policies ... that address educational purposes and acceptable use of electronic resource technologies and the Internet. This policy restricts the use of cellphones during the school day."
Vargo said the policies align with and support federal and state laws and policies regarding minors using technology, including the federal Child Internet and Protection Act and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and West Virginia Board of Education policy which defines the educational purpose and acceptable use of electronic resources.
"We do recognize that after school hours, students often need to make arrangements for transportation, particularly if they are participating in after school sports or other extra curricular activities," she said. "For this reason, students may use cellphones after school hours for transportation purposes."
Vargo said Wheeling Park High School students also are allowed to use cellphones in the food court before school, during lunch and after school. She said students who violate technology-use rules are subject to punishment.
"In another effort to provide safe and supportive schools, our prevention resource officers provide education to students on the appropriate use of technology," she said.
Meanwhile, Ihlenfeld is no stranger to the issue of sexting.
"My office has done a number of outreach programs throughout the Northern Panhandle," he said. "We have been a to a number of middle schools and high schools. A part of our presentation involves teaching students on how to be responsible with social media, and we talked to the students about the dangers of sexting."
Ihlenfeld said it's important for children to know and understand the consequences of sexting.
"There can be severe consequences for someone who creates, possesses or transmits sexually explicit images or images that are inappropriate as defined by state law," he said.
Sexting can be particularly troublesome for some students who are over the age of 18 because they will be prosecuted as adults in federal or state court.
In addition to legal consequences, Ihlenfeld said sexting can jeopardize a young person's future.
"A major newspaper recently published an article in which they surveyed 400 college admission officers," Ihlenfeld said. "It revealed that 31 percent of them said they visited an applicant's Facebook or other social media page in order to learn more about them in deciding whether to admit them. A large number of those surveyed said the information they found online had a negative impact on their prospects for admission. If a young person posts a sexually inappropriate picture on the Internet, he or she cannot get it back. College admission officers and prospective employers are looking at these digital footprints and if the footprint contains these types of images, the consequences may be devastating."
He said sexting activity also can cause mental issues such as anxiety or depression.
Ihlenfeld said officials of the St. Clairsville-Richland School District reached out to his office in August prior to the school year, but scheduling conflicts prevented him from making his presentation.