I don’t have children nearing high school age yet, but I’m already worried. High School changed in the 2010s and high school today is not the high school we - the parents of 2020s high school students - went to.
I know that from my practice. We see cases, serious cases, involving high school – and college – students that we would never have seen a decade ago. Some concern, of course, technology we could only have dreamed of while trying to text on flip phones.
I was talking with a colleague from the Northeast about this last week. He had three children graduate high school between 2010 and 2018. He related a story about the middle child, a daughter, that brought those changes home in a visceral way. I asked him if he would mind briefly writing about it, this is it:
My daughter moved back home after she received her master’s degree and took a great job 10 miles away from us. It’s nice having her around and as she works for a professional sports team it’s great to get free tickets and all kinds of perks.
Over the last few weeks she’s asked me a few questions that I, at first, thought were kind of, well, silly, coming as they were from a highly educated, accomplished woman.
All of them concerned really trivial day to day things, like late library books; an EZPass that failed to register on the New York State Thruway; and a late dog license.
She was afraid that these could lead to ‘legal problems.’ Intrinsically, she knew none of these were a big deal in any sense, yet they gnawed at her.
The reason is high school. Her high school education was bifurcated. She started when the hallways were patrolled by hall monitors, she finished with ex-law enforcement officers at the front door and passes needed to be out of the room while classes were meeting. She started when behavioral and most disciplinary matters were handled by teachers and staff. She finished with almost all behavioral and disciplinary matters being referred to outside agencies, the police, and the courts.
Then there was this, it started in the third semester of her junior year and lasted until her graduation: a sexting ‘scandal.’ The first in our state.
It came out of nowhere and it started with the arrest of a parent. The parent who found a sext on his daughter’s phone – sent to her boyfriend – freaked out, sent a copy to his phone and then sent that copy to the parent of the boyfriend. The parent of the boyfriend went straight to the police. The father was arrested for disseminating child pornography and made the local six o’clock news.
It spread from there. The boyfriend was suspended from school simultaneously with his arrest for possession of child pornography, he had been accepted at an out of state college that promptly withdrew his admission.
After the news reports rocked the school, the sexts that started it all were quickly and efficiently shared by at least a dozen upper-class members. The girl was suspended, the case referred to juvenile court – possession and dissemination of child pornography. Possession, of course, of her own pictures.
It was a mess and it lasted through my daughter’s graduation, which was several seniors short due to suspensions and pending charges.
My daughter’s last year was one of rumor, suspensions, arrests, investigations, teenagers afraid to open their phones – because at some point it seemed to her and her classmates that getting the wrong picture on a phone led to automatic arrest. It seemed that way to her and her friends and I’m sure it never went away.
No one went to prison over this, it all went quietly away. The state legislature started several initiatives to amend the child pornography laws to ‘account for teenage texting.’ To date nothing has happened. No legislator wants to be perceived as soft on child pornography.
Charges against the parent were dropped but, of course, his very public arrest can never be undone.
It hasn’t gotten better since my friend’s children graduated. We’ve seen a steady stream of sexting and other sexual cases emanating from high schools over the last few years. The law still hasn’t caught up to the realities of hormones and high school and smart phones with more computing power than the desktops we used when we were in high school.
One other thing to take away from this: none of these matters effect only the students involved. The repercussions are far reaching and many times, as in my friend’s story, parents are swept into it in frightening ways.
Take precautions. Talk to your children. And, always, feel free to call us.