Legislature debates bills aimed at youth cell phone use, ‘sexting’

Legislature debates bills aimed at youth cell phone use, ‘sexting’

HARTFORD — State lawmakers are considering two bills related to the use of cellphones in schools.

One of the bills, passed by the House Wednesday, would set guidelines for when school administrators or teachers are able to confiscate cell phones from students.

The bill, which passed 138-7, would allow teachers to confiscate a phone or other electronic device only if they have reasonable suspicion that it contains evidence that a student had violated educational policy or posed a threat to someone else.

Teachers would then give the phone to an administrator, who could review only contents related to the suspected behavior. School officials would also be required to report to parents or guardians within 24 hours why the phone was confiscated and who was in possession of it.

Rep. Andy Fleischman, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said the bill not only sets guidelines that protect students’ privacy, but clarifies for teachers when they are able to take such action. The Connecticut Education Association supported the bill in testimony submitted earlier this session.

Fleischman said the bill is also needed because some children share cellphones with parents or other relatives, and it would prevent school employees from turning suspicions into “fishing expeditions.”

Rep. Sam Belsito, R-Tolland, repeatedly called the legislation a “bad bill,” saying students should instead be instructed to leave their phones in their lockers or at home. “This is a BS bill, and that means a bad solution to a problem,” he said.

The House unanimously approved a bill earlier this month that would reduce penalties for “sexting” in some situations for children 12 and under, mirroring changes already made for anyone between the ages of 13 and 17.

The bill would make it a class A misdemeanor for minors who send a naked photo of themselves, or to be the knowing recipient of an explicit photo. Advocates say a previous law made the change only for teenagers because there was no concern at the time about anyone 12 or under possessing a cellphone.

They say the change is needed, though, to make children eligible for diversionary programs if they are caught engaging in “sexting.” Without the change, they could be charged with possession of child pornography.

The bill only applies when all parents consent to the activity, and wouldn’t protect minors who take nude photos of unsuspecting victims. It also doesn’t apply to adults engaged in “sexting” with minors, or to recipient minors who then disseminate images to others.

State Rep. Liz Linehan, a Democrat representing Cheshire, Southington and Wallingford, said both bills address the fact that kids are using cell phones to take sexually explicit pictures at younger and younger ages.

“I think that the best thing that can come out of both of these bills is that parents are going to be made aware of it, and it will start a conversation with their child,” she said.

Southington police are investigating allegations of inappropriate text messages sent by students at both the town’s middle schools, a police spokesman said this week. It wasn’t clear if the allegations involved sexually explicit messages.

Christina Simms, Southington Youth Services director, said the department held an information session for parents at the library two months ago and discussed the use of cell phones by teenagers and the need for oversight. She urged parents to be vigilant with their children’s cell phone use and to talk to them about the dangers of misusing cell phones and social media.

“It was a really good conversation,” Simms said. “It was just a shame more parents didn’t attend.”

Staff writer Jesse Buchanan
contributed to this story


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