By Jean Reynolds

Your police training will include information about teenagers who participate in “cyber bullying” and “sexting.” These popular behaviors employ electronic technology with potentially devastating effects. Cyber bullying is a form of harassment via texting and social networking sites (Facebook, for example.) “Sexting” usually means that two people in a consensual relationship are sending each other sexually explicit messages, images, or both.

Your police training is likely to include information about “cyber bullying” and “sexting,” harmful teen behaviors performed via electronic technology.

“Cyber bullying” is a form of harassment that happens via texting and social networking sites (Facebook, for example). Students target a particular student and bully him or her through cruel messages, mockery, rumors, or embarrassing images. Cyber bullying can be devastating to the victim, who may suffer permanent psychological damage. Some victims have committed suicide. Cyber bullying is illegal in 34 states.

“Sexting” usually means that two people in a consensual relationship are sending each other sexual messages, images, or both, usually via mobile phones. The dangers are obvious: Teens may experience embarrassment, ridicule, and guilt, and there can be more serious repercussions if the pictures are forwarded to others. Sexting can be a degrading experience, especially for girls. Although many schools do not have anti-sexting policies in place, every state prohibits the sending of sexual messages to minors. That means any teen who participates in sexting potentially faces severe penalties—a reality that the young couple may not understand.

Both cyber bullying and sexting are complex issues that present challenges to everyone involved—teens, parents, educators, and law enforcement professionals. Cyber bullying seems simpler, since there are clear victims (the targets of the harassment) and perpetrators (the teens posting the messages and images). School resource officers are usually charged with handling these incidents. But what if the harassment is taking place outside of school? Often school officials and officers mistakenly decide that there are no legal grounds for intervening on behalf of the victim.

Recently, however, law enforcement has been finding alternative ways to confront cyber bullying. Legal experts say that schools can charge offending students with interfering with the learning process, even when messages and images are transmitted off campus. Experienced school resource officers say that talking about the seriousness of the situation can be a wake-up call to students and their parents.

Similar principles apply to sexting. When there’s a consensual relationship, a talk with students and parents about possible legal consequences may solve the problem. When there’s an element of coercion, or compromising images have been forwarded to other students, formal prosecution should be considered.

Prevention is, of course, the wisest course. Students, parents, teachers, and law enforcement need information about statutes and consequences. Schools may need to talk with both law enforcement and legal experts to ensure that policies and procedures are in place if needed. Working together, families, schools, and law enforcement can help protect children from the devastating effects of cyber bullying and sexting.