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Manatee schools cracking down on ‘sexting’

BRADENTON — Using her cellular telephone, a teenage girl shoots a racy photo of herself to her boyfriend. But when they break up, he posts it on the Internet without her permission.

The practice is called “sexting,” and local school officials want to warn students of its consequences, which can include serious time behind bars.

“It seems to be a growing problem nationwide — you hear about it, you read about it increasingly,” said Manatee County School Board Member Bob Gause.

So as the upcoming school year approaches, the school board wants students to know: If they are caught with explicit photos on their cell phones, they now face possible expulsion for the practice and will be reported to the police.

It’s just one of a few student code of conduct rules updated during the board’s last meeting.

Students who post, send, forward or show others a nude or sexually revealing photo of a person through the Internet or texting will be suspended and recommended for expulsion, according to the new policy.

The use of cell phones and pagers is already forbidden during the school day. They are permitted for use only if students have written permission from an administrator or teacher designee.

School Board Attorney John Bowen said the district hasn’t had any recent “sexting” instances, but merely wants to be proactive.

“We are just staying ahead of the curve,” said Bowen. “I heard about it on some national news reports and immediately relayed it to the principals, who also had heard about it. I wanted to give them a heads-up this may be a problem you should be aware of, and we needed to advise kids of the consequences and let staff know how to handle it.”

Manatee County Sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow said they have had a few reported cases involving “sexting” within the past year.

“And sometimes the juvenile thinks there is nothing wrong with it, but obviously that is not the case,” Bristow said.

“We’re talking about a felony, so this is not something they want to get involved in — it could ruin their lives.”

Under the law, possession of child pornography is a felony punishable by prison time. Those convicted of the crime could be labeled a sex offender.

And that label sticks with them for life.

“We wanted to head it off so it doesn’t happen,” Bowen said.

Another update to the student conduct code: Students who are arrested must now tell their school within two days of the arrest.

Even if students are not convicted of a crime, they can also be suspended from school extracurricular activities including sports.

Already, local law enforcement has promised in an inter-local agreement to notify the school district when students are arrested. The change was made after the arrests in two unrelated cases of three high school students on murder charges.

One of the suspects, Timothy Brooks, had been allowed to play football, even though he had been arrested on prior felony charges. After he was charged with murder in a case last summer, school officials said they had not known about the earlier charges.

Students now must self-report any felony arrest to their principal within 48 hours of the arrest, according to the updated student conduct code. An arrest that would be a felony if the student were an adult must also be self-reported.

In the end, the principal and district director of school management determine whether the student should be suspended from all extracurricular activities, and possibly suspended from school or reassigned to an alternative placement.

Failure to report an arrest could result in suspension from all extracurricular activities for a minimum of one calendar year, and suspension from school or reassignment to an alternative placement.

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