A teenager at the heart of a significant sexting scandal at North Penn High School in Landsdale, PA, entered a guilty plea on March 22. Brandon Tyler Berlin, 19, pleaded guilty to a single charge of “transmission of sexually explicit images by a minor,” a misdemeanor. Under the terms of his plea deal, he was sentenced to two year’s probation, fined $250, and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.
The case dates back to the spring of 2015, when school officials at North Penn first learned that high school boys were sharing nude photos of female classmates in a group chat and on Dropbox. The district superintendent, Dr. Curtis R. Streich, posted a message for parents that read in part:
Like the community that all of us here at NPSD serve, I am looking for ways we can continue to stress to our students the severity of such actions while at the same time reinforcing the important messages of self-worth and smart decision making. … I also ask that parents make this an important topic in their families and talk about the dangers of inappropriate use of technology.
The investigation by school officials and law enforcement continued into the summer of 2015. In July of that year, a particularly thorough and well-written article about the scandal was published by the Web site Refinery29. Written by Mandy Velez (a North Penn graduate working as a journalist in New York), the article includes several interviews of young women whose photos were part of the Dropbox collection or who were falsely associated with nude photos. It is an important and compelling read for educators, parents, and teens about the emotional and social consequences of these types of incidents.
Based on the interviews conducted by Velez, the collection was compiled as follows: high school boys solicited nude or semi-nude photos from their girlfriends or hookups, most of whom were minors and some of whom were as young as 14. They shared those photos with other boys using group text-messaging (committing electronic sexual assault in the process). The shared photos (eventually numbering at least 300) were uploaded to a Dropbox folder, where they were organized by the name of the pictured girl. The URL for the Dropbox folder was then shared and re-shared throughout the North Penn school community (and possibly beyond).
In September 2015, police arrested Berlin and charged him with “transmission of sexually explicit images of a minor.” Berlin reportedly admitted to police that he was responsible for setting up the Dropbox folder (which he named “I prolly had ur pics”), collecting the photos, and sharing the folder URL with other students. He used the Dropbox folder name as his quote in the 2015 senior yearbook, which will serve as a charming reminder to his classmates in reunions to come.
The Montgomery County District Attorney, Risa Vetri Ferman, told reporters that Berlin would be the only student facing charges.
While there were many juveniles involved, in the end we made the decision that the most appropriate course of action was to charge the individual responsible for the mass distribution of these images and not to charge all of those individuals who cooperated in the investigation and had minor roles.
During his plea hearing and sentencing, Berlin apologized for his actions, telling Judge Gary S. Silow that “I’m very sorry for what I did.” In response, Judge Silow called his behavior “inexcusable” but add that this type of thing “probably happens a lot in our society.”
There is a possibility that Berlin’s community service will include sharing his story in area schools as a warning to other students.
Reflections and Discussion Points
Sexts Are The New Baseball Cards: As writer Hanna Rosin observed in a disturbing Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross in the fall of 2014, teenage boys collect sexting photos much in the same way that their older siblings collected “baseball cards or Pokemon cards.” Rosin went on to add:
It’s kind of a social currency more than it is a springboard for fantasy, which is kind of surprising. There’s so much free porn out there that these pictures serve a different role. These guys look at these pictures for five seconds; they’re just not that big of a deal to them. And so sending them along is kind of fun. … It seems like a prank.
Gross invited Rosin onto her show to discuss the lengthy article that Rosin wrote for the November 2014 Atlantic, in which she took a close look at a sexting scandal that hit Louisa County High School in central Virginia. In some ways, that case was similar to what occurred in Montgomery County, PA; the chief difference being that the kids in Virginia used Instagram accounts, rather than Dropbox, to share over 100 nude and semi-nude images of girls.
Rosin’s article, while informative, wanders around a bit and it’s not clear what her ultimate conclusion is. My best guess is that she thinks that adults overreact to sexting by teens, and that teens themselves don’t really think it’s that big a deal. She ends on an optimistic note: “Given how inundated and unfazed they are by sexual imagery, perhaps the best hope is that one day, in the distant future, a naked picture of a girl might simply lose its power to humiliate.”
It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Goes to Jail: The harsh reality that many teens face, unfortunately, is that their behavior and their attitudes still put them at risk of prosecution, jail time, and sex offender registration under federal and state child pornography laws. In fairness, I think that all but the most conservative prosecutors try to balance an understanding of teen hormones with the actual dictates of the law, but many state child pornography statutes (as well as the federal law) contain no exception for the age of the person actually taking or sending a nude photo.
Support for a more rational approach may be growing. Just this morning, the New York Times published an op-ed calling for the decriminalization of teen sexting. It’s a well-reasoned piece.
I’ll be writing about this at more length in the near future myself. We do need to reconcile our laws regarding nude imagery with the realities of modern technology use. Child pornography laws were never intended to punish teens for flirting with their peers, and they shouldn’t run the risk of being punished as child molesters when they willingly share a nude photo of themselves or receive a photo freely sent.
Instead, the focus should be on the concepts of consent, control, and relative power. If someone takes or redistributes a nude photo without consent, that is electronic sexual assault and it should be punished commensurate with the severity of the harm committed.
Boys Will Be Boys?: Which brings us to the charge and the sentence in this case. Given the number of images that Berlin collected, uploaded to Dropbox and shared throughout the North Penn school community, it is a little startling that he was charged with just a single misdemeanor. Equally questionable is the sentence handed down by the judge. Yes, he did summarize Berlin’s conduct as “inexcusable,” but the combination of mere probation and the observation that it “probably happens a lot” suggests that the betrayal of trust actually was pretty excusable.
In an email, North Penn grad Velez agreed:
I’m disappointed with the outcome. It’s barely a slap on the wrist and speaks greatly to the amount of respect the law pays to women whose bodies have been violated. But I’m most disturbed by the comments made by the prosecutor after sentencing. The overall takeaway seemingly was “don’t send or exchange nudes,” and I find that highly problematic. Women, and teen girls, alike have a right to do what they please with their body. The only lesson here is not to violate a person’s privacy.
She’s exactly correct. The young women who took photos of themselves and voluntarily shared them with young men did not commit a crime; the crime occurred when their boyfriends and paramours shared those images without consent with Berlin, and even more so when Berlin shared them with the broader community. Those actions merited a stronger response from the court in this case.