Voices of Digital Communities

Nude Pictures, Email and the Lessons of Lacey

It was what followed next that gives me heart. The prosecutor talked with the kids and their parents and decided not to press charges.

by / April 25, 2011

Parents, a school principal and a prosecutor in Lacey, Washington USA deserve a lot of credit. 

On March 26, The New York Times published a lengthy story ("Sexting Turns Explicit, Altering Young Lives" by Jan Hoffman) on a scandal in this surburb of Olympia, the Washington State capital. 

An eighth grade boy named Isaiah was dating a girl of the same age, named Margarite, and asked her for a picture.  A nude picture.  Margarite took a full-frontal shot of herself with her mobile phone in the bathroom mirror and emailed it to him. 

Strange, you think?  Apparently not so much, at least not in America.  Young people are experimenting with various text and visual forms of "sexting," as it is called.  They do it to look cool and sexy to someone they find attractive -- just like their elders.  In February, the married Republican Congressman Christopher Lee of New York resigned after sending a shirtless photo of himself to a women he met on Craig's List.

In the face of a new challenge created by mobile broadband,
they came together as a community instead of
allowing themselves to be set one against another.

The young couple broke up soon after.  Another girl, once a friend of Margarite's, got wind of the photo a few weeks later and pressured the young man for a copy.  He emailed it to her.  She emailed the photo to her friends with choice commentary on the "whore" pictured there.  Not surprisingly, it went viral.  And as the journalist so eloquently put it, "In less than 24 hours, the effect was as if Margarite, 14, had sauntered naked down the hallways of the four middle schools" in the town.  Her life became a torment that she was too ashamed to tell her mother about. 

Then a parent complained to the principal of the school about a naked photo sent to her child.  The principal called Margarite's mother.  The police questioned Margarite.  The principal received a complaint from another parent and went into crisis mode.    Soon more students were being summoned to the principal's office and questioned by the cops.  Their mobile phones were taken away.  The trail led to the girl who sent the photo.  She and Isaiah had to spend a night in the county juvenile detention center.  The county prosecutor considered pressing charges.  Sexting is not illegal but distributing child pornography definitely is.   

It was what followed next that gives me heart.  The prosecutor talked with the kids and their parents and decided not to press charges.  Despite some pressure from residents, he came to believe that the night in jail was suitable punishment for the primary offenders -- one that sent a serious message to all of the kids in the community -- and that Margarite was more victim than perpetrator.  Isaiah and the girl who forwarded the photo were assigned to a community service project in which they created material on the hazards of sexting.  They also had to attend a heart-wrenching meeting with Margarite, where Isaiah asked her forgiveness.  The material was used to educate Lacey's teachers, parents and student delegations, and the students returned to their home rooms to teach classmates what they had learned. 

Margarite moved to another school.  Her mother took away her mobile phone for the time being, which made Margarite furious.  But it also insulated her a bit when the photo appeared at her new school and a new tsunami of humiliation came crashing down on her.  Eventually, Margarite moved back to her old school where, she decided, she at least had friends as well as a reputation. 

Why do I think the people involved deserve a lot of credit?  Because instead of allowing fear and anger to overwhelm them, they took the time to understand the situation and respond in a measured way.  In the face of a new challenge created by mobile broadband, they came together as a community instead of allowing themselves to be set one against another.  That is something Intelligent Communities do, and the people of Lacey provided an impressive demonstration of how it is done. 

What advice does Margarite have to offer a girl or boy of her age about sexting?  "I guess if they are about to send a picture," she said, "and they have a feeling, like, they're not sure they should, then don't do it at all.  I mean, what are you thinking?  It's freaking stupid!"

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.