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'Sexting' probed at Montgomery, Md., middle school

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; B01

Students at a Bethesda middle school bought, sold and traded inappropriate photos and videos of fellow students, school officials said Thursday, and Montgomery County police are investigating.

Educators at Pyle Middle School said they were alerted to images on a student's iPod Touch last week. Students told school officials that the images were of girls from Pyle Middle School and Whitman High School and that they had been passed around for at least several months, Pyle Principal Michael Zarchin said. No adults appear to be involved, Zarchin said.

At least some of the images were of naked girls, according to a source with knowledge of the students' descriptions.

Montgomery police began an investigation Thursday into whether any crimes had been committed, a spokeswoman said. Neither police nor school officials would say precisely how many students were involved in the "sexting," citing privacy concerns and the fact that the investigation is just beginning.

This month, Zarchin wrote a column in the school newsletter warning against inappropriate Internet behavior, he said. On Thursday, he and Whitman High School officials sent letters to parents telling them that his forebodings had become reality.

"We had no idea this was something we'd have to address," Zarchin said Thursday. "The unfortunate thing for students is that once this information is out there, it's out there. You can't get it back." He said he contacted police immediately after being given a description of the photos last Friday.

"This was something I felt the police should investigate," he said.

Although the photos were taken onto school property, most of the inappropriate activity appears to have taken place off school grounds and outside school hours, he said. This week, he contacted parents of students involved.

"Students had asked students if they wanted to buy access to the pictures, and we did have a number who did," he said. Some of those transactions "occurred at Pyle during the school day," Zarchin told parents in his letter.

As more and more young people have cellphones, sexting has become increasingly common locally in the past two years, officials say.

According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 15 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 say they have received sexually suggestive photos or videos on their cellphones. But only 4 percent said they had sent a naked image. Studies that focused on older students found somewhat higher numbers.

One Pyle parent said Thursday that the incident shows how difficult it is to control such behavior, despite the work the school has done with parents and students in recent years.

"It's frustrating to have something like this still happen," said Karen Judson, president of Pyle's PTA. "Maybe some of our students just aren't ready for some of the technology that we're handing them."

She said the incident validated her decision to give her son a cellphone but not to let him send or receive text messages or have a Facebook account.

"This could happen to any parent at any time," she said.

Staff writer Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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