LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — School officials at Pinelands Regional are asking parents to talk with their children after a seventh-grade boy in the district was charged by police Thursday with sharing an explicit video of a 12-year-old classmate on social media.
“This is not a situation for finger-pointing. They’re young, they’re in seventh grade, it’s more a situation where we should be educating our children and letting them know the ramifications of doing such things,” Superintendent Melissa McCooley said Friday.
Police could not be reached Friday for comment.
The incident garnered varied reactions from parents after McCooley posted a letter Thursday evening on the Pinelands Regional School District Facebook page informing parents of the situation and asking them to get involved.
“Please understand that the student depicted in the video is 12 years old, therefore, this is classified as child pornography,” wrote McCooley. “It is evident that students need additional education regarding the ramifications of sending inappropriate messages/videos and social media.”
Some of those who commented on the post expressed sadness for the girl who appeared in the video, some wanted to see both students receive punishment and most wanted more discussion between parents and their children.
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Parent Jessica Hannold, of Eagleswood Township, said her now 17-year-old son sent an explicit photo to a girl when he was in sixth grade, but the parents hashed it out and talked to their children, not to the police.
“If they are both children, I feel counseling should probably be in order over criminal charges,” Hannold wrote.
Reached by phone Friday, Hannold said she believes the incident has instilled in her son the consequences of his actions, but he was lucky the girl who received the photo didn’t share it online. She said she still wants her children to understand: “Once it’s out there, it’s always out there.”
Parent Charlie Roth, of Tuckerton, has three children in the district and said he talks to his kids at least twice a week about using social media safely.
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“Myself and my ex-wife have taught regularly, and have constant battles with the kids about activity on social media,” he said. “The world is looking at you when you fool around on social media.”
Roth said “sexting” is not a Pinelands-specific problem. He is right.
Sexting among young adults and adolescents has been a national issue for several years, especially due to smartphones. State legislators have taken notice.
In August 2018, New Jersey passed a law that requires school districts to include instruction on the consequences of distributing sexually explicit images through electronic means as part of New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education.
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School officials said they became aware of the incident at Pinelands by a student who had seen the video of the young girl shared online by other people. The vice principal for the seventh grade contacted McCooley and police, and charges were filed against the boy who initially shared the video, McCooley said.
The student who initially shared the video has been suspended, but there was no disciplinary action against the girl who appeared in the video.
McCooley said she plans to reach out to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office for help in this situation and asked parents to speak to their children.
On Friday, McCooley said education about the dangers and ramifications of sexting is part of the curriculum at Pinelands Regional and is addressed in health class, as well as social studies.
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“The students are educated, and I think that’s why the girl who came to the principal immediately knew what to do,” she said. “The Prosecutor’s Office has done assemblies for our kids and for parents.”
The district will continue to offer workshops on sexting and social media for parents and students, McCooley said. In addition, the district has technology in place to track the use of certain words and phrases over its Wi-Fi network to prevent these incidents.
McCooley said this is not the first time she has dealt with a similar situation, but it is rare in students so young. She said there are similar incidents at least once a month in the district, mainly at the high school level.