Two 14-year-old Wheaton middle school students have been criminally charged in connection with the electronic posting of inappropriate images involving students and staff members, authorities have confirmed.
The charges were filed in juvenile court, and include four felony counts. The Edison Middle School students are accused of three counts of harassment by electronic communications, four counts of obscenity and one count of transmission of obscene messages, according to a spokesman from the DuPage County state's attorney's office.
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Barrington Middle School
District 220 officials notified parents on April 7 about an investigation into whether inappropriate images of a middle school student were sent to a group of classmates. Two students at Barrington Middle School-Station Campus have been charged.
Edison Middle School, Wheaton
Officials informed parents on May 20 that Wheaton police were investigating "dummy" social media accounts that posted inappropriate images involving Edison students and staff members. Two 14-year-old boys have been charged.
Forest Glen Middle School, Glen Ellyn
Officials discovered on April 18 that two fifth-grade students and a fourth-grader viewed pornographic material while at school.
Rotolo Middle School, Batavia
Leaders learned on April 29 that students distributed nude pictures of themselves to classmates. Instead of pursuing criminal charges, police and the school announced plans to educate students about the ramifications of the use and misuse of social media.
Source: Daily Herald files
School officials learned last month about the images, which they have characterized as "created" and "not true images." Criminal charges were filed May 23, but confirmed to the Daily Herald only recently.
This brings to four the number of known cases of suburban middle and elementary school students discovered sexting or viewing pornography. In addition to the Wheaton case, two students in Barrington were criminally charged. Authorities in Batavia decided not to do so after several students took nude photos of themselves and shared them with others. And in Glen Ellyn, where elementary students viewed pornography at school, officials have refused to say what actions were taken.
The instances underscore the challenge of giving electronic devices to very young students for learning purposes while also providing access to all that's available on the Internet. Some school districts plan to spend the summer reviewing their policies and procedures, including use of the students' own equipment.
"Technology has made both parenting and teaching more complicated than it has ever been," said Jeff Arnett, spokesman for Barrington Unit District 220. "I think these recent incidents remind us that we have to be even more vigilant in helping students understand the risks associated with technology, as well as the benefits."
District 220 and police launched a sexting investigation in April when they discovered that inappropriate images of a Barrington middle school student were shared among a circle of students via text messages. Now two boys who attend Barrington Middle School-Station Campus are facing possession of child pornography charges for texting sexually explicit photos and video of the student.
It's the type of crime that wasn't even possible back when most photographs had to be professionally developed, phones couldn't access the Internet and inappropriate material usually came in the form of a magazine.
"The kids haven't changed," said Sarah Katula, an advanced practice nurse in psychiatry from Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. She said children tend to be impulsive, risk-taking and curious.
The difference is that kids today have access to the Internet -- and all the information it provides.
"When kids back in the day were exploring their sexuality, they might go into their parents' closet and find something naughty," Katula said. "Now they have so much more at their fingertips."
Two fifth-grade students and one fourth-grader at Forest Glen School in Glen Ellyn didn't even didn't even need a computer to view pornography while they were on the school playground. The students looked at pornographic material stored on a mobile device. School officials also said the fourth-grader and one of the fifth-graders accessed an inappropriate website through a classroom computer.
District 41 spokeswoman Julie Worthen said staff members received training after the incident. The district also is preparing for "a comprehensive security audit" over the summer break that will include reviewing its Internet filter. In addition, the district is planning to examine its procedures with respect to kids bringing personal devices to school.
"Right now, students can bring devices to school as long as they keep the devices turned off and put away," Worthen said. "We're going to look at how is that being translated into action. Do we need to make some changes?"
Worthen said the district's goal is to strengthen its system without depriving students of the educational material they need.
"Technology is very much integral to education," she said. "We have many wonderful tools. We certainly are wanting our students -- even our youngest students -- to know how to take the initiative to find things out for themselves."
After the sexting incident, Barrington school officials said they heard concerns from some parents about the district's plan to give every student in grades 6 through 12 either an iPad or a MacBook Air.
"Parents were asking, 'If technology is becoming such a temptation and a potential danger to our students, why are we giving it to them so that they can possibly have 24-7 access?'" district spokesman Arnett said.
But with laptops and tablets quickly taking the place of textbooks, District 220 is moving ahead with its planned fall rollout of the devices.
"We also have an obligation and a responsibility as a school district," Arnett said. "If we're providing students with even more technology, then education as to how students can protect themselves has to be a part of that program."
The district already has hosted a series of meetings for students and parents. More sessions are planned for the fall.
"We can never fully protect our students from the world that's out there," Arnett said. "But we can teach them how to protect themselves and how they can behave responsibly with all of the technology now that's available to them."
When Batavia police learned that six to seven students from Rotolo Middle School took nude photos of themselves and sent them to other students, a decision was made to not press charges. Instead, Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon said he hopes parents use the investigation as an opportunity to teach their children about responsible social media usage.
"It was just very clear to us that this was more of a teaching opportunity," McMahon said. "We could accomplish the same goals through education as we could through juvenile proceedings."
In the meantime, his advice to parents is simple.
"Talk to your kids," McMahon said. "From the time they get a device, talk to them about responsible use. Let them know that you're going to look at their device."
In fact, Good Samaritan's Katula says research shows that kids are less likely to do sexting on a phone their parents are paying for. That's because the kids are more worried that their parents will check the phone.
And what should parents do if they find objectionable material on their son's or daughter's cellphone? Don't delete the images if they appear to be of a young person.
"If there's an indication that somebody is being abused or at risk of abuse," McMahon said, "then that really should be reported to law enforcement or to the Department of Children and Family Services."