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Let's Talk About Sext: One Principal's Attempt To Start A Dialog With Students

If one Vermont high school's experience is any measure, sexting is commonplace among students. And while adults may consider the sending of explicit photos of oneself to be deeply problematic, teens think about it differently.

Last week the principal of Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg emailed the entire school community with a message that was meant to begin a series of conversations among students, parents and teachers about sexting. CVU principal Adam Bunting posited a lot of unanswered questions in that message about the social norms for teens, technology and relationships. Wednesday afternoon he invited students to meet with him in the school library to begin a dialogue about sexting, and Vermont Edition talked to him afterward.

On the email, and efforts to create a dialogue

Bunting said that sending the email to the CVU community felt "liberating" and "important" because of the conversation it opened.

The email prompted students and community members to consider a multitude of questions. The scope of the questions included the legal repercussions of sending and receiving nude photographs, the intersection of intimacy and technology, societal pressures to participate in these exchanges and clear generational differences in how sexting is viewed.

Bunting also invited students to join him for an informal discussion. Although the event was not well-attended, the insight Bunting gained was important. "I'm sure I ended up doing more learning than they did," he says.

On student culture and technology

"I keep trying to remind [people I speak to] that this is actually less about sexting and more about gender roles, and more about generational gaps and about the influence of technology in one's life," says Bunting. "The number of times I've heard adults say, 'I'm so glad I didn't have that technology when I was their age!' has been more than I can count."

When Bunting asked the students who attended his session their estimates on how many students share nude photos of themselves, they guessed that approximately 40 percent of the 1200 students participate.

"I think what we're dealing with is a generation where the normal expectations around dating are very different than the normal expectations around dating for what my generation were," - Champlain Valley Union High School principal Adam Bunting

"I think what we're dealing with is a generation where the normal expectations around dating are very different than the normal expectations around dating for what my generation were," says Bunting.

On the role of administrators

"You start to think of these phones as not just extension of the social life, but the inner life of a student," says Bunting. "And all of a sudden an administrator is searching that phone, and someone is looking through that creates a culture you don't want in a school."

Sometimes, however, these searches are necessary.

"[Sexting] becomes a school issue any time anyone comes into school and feels like their learning process has been distributed," says Bunting, who adds that school administrators don't have much of a choice on whether or not intervention is an appropriate response.

New harassment laws give administrators 24 hours to launch an investigation for any allegation of harassment or bullying. From there, they have five days to conduct, conclude, and notify individuals of the investigation's outcome.

Bunting emphasized that the issue and prevalence of sexting is not "any different at CVU than any other school in the country right now."

"I think a lot of times we deal with things quietly because we don't want people judging our communities or our schools but I can tell you, this is happening everywhere," says Bunting.

Bunting says the next steps at CVU include assemblies to cover the legal jeopardy that students put themselves in when they share sexual images of themselves or others, and continuing the discussion on the evolving relationship between technology and teen relationships.

Update 11/20/15 3:56 p.m: This post has been updated to include excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity and length.

Patti is an integral part of VPR's news effort and part of the team that created Vermont Edition. As executive producer, Patti supervises the team that puts Vermont Edition on the air every day, working with producers to select and research show ideas, select guests and develop the sound and tone of the program.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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