Sextortion in Schools: Advice for Educators | Love146
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Director of U.S. Prevention Education


When we ask students to name the trusted adults in their lives, they regularly list you — their teachers, school counselors, and other adults they encounter during the school day. Your role in their lives often extends beyond teaching primary academic subjects — which may mean that you will be asked to provide support for something you don’t feel prepared to respond to. Like sextortion.

The students in your school are growing up in a world that is likely very different from the one you grew up in — especially when it comes to social media. It’s cliche but true: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat — these are today’s gathering places. The space where youth engage in the normal adolescent behavior of exploring and testing their boundaries.

As a preventative measure, we want to teach kids how to safely navigate the Internet, how to recognize when something may be getting out of control, and how to access help when needed.

In order to do this, we need to educate ourselves and be prepared to be a safe adult that they can turn to when they need help. We also need to understand our responsibilities as that adult, and know how to respond thoughtfully, whether as a mandated reporter or concerned adult.

1. LISTEN

Stephen Covey, author and educator, has noted that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This method of “listening” can actually prevent us from hearing. Carefully listen to what your student is telling you — through both their words and body language.

2. CREATE A SAFE, NON-JUDGEMENTAL SPACE

Asking for help is not easy. Youth who experience sextortion can feel extreme fear, judgement, and shame. These feelings can prevent them from seeking help. Abusers may also use these feelings to control their victims. How you respond in this moment can inform how your students view themselves.

Remember, children make mistakes — just like adults do. Consider your words, your tone, and your body language. Express encouragement and appreciation for the student’s initiative to share and/or ask for support.

If the student is being sextorted.

Whether we as adults like it or not, many children do not understand the potential consequences of certain behaviors and thus engage in sexting. This does not mean that those or other images of them should be used for sextortion.

It is important to communicate that what has happened to them is wrong and not their fault, regardless of whether or not they were involved in producing and distributing the original image.

If the student is sextorting someone else.

Communicate that you understand it isn’t easy to admit your behavior is wrong, and that they’ve taken an important step in seeking help to stop.

3. RESPOND

If the student is being sextorted.

It is important to consider the impact of this experience, and connect the student to resources and support. Youth have reported significant psychological and physical effects from sextortion, and may not know how to seek help. When responding to youth, ask few, but key questions about basic safety and providing support. Remember, it is not within your role to investigate, and asking too many questions could have a negative impact on the youth and/or a potential future investigation.

  • If a student is expressing a need for support or difficult feelings, you might ask, “Would you like to talk to someone (counselor, mentor, therapist) about how to best handle this?
  • If students express suicidal thoughts or talk about hopelessness, consider whether it is safe for them to go home without some form of formal assessment by a school counselor or therapist. Ask if they are having “thoughts about harming themself or others?” If they answer yes, they should be seen by a school counselor or therapist immediately.
  • If a student expresses fear or is hesitant to share information, ask a question to assess safety such as, “Are there times when you don’t feel safe?”  If they answer yes, follow your school protocol to determine how to safeguard the student and report to the appropriate authorities.

Become familiar with services in your school and local area, as well as those that are available nationally. Students can text ‘THORN’ to 741741 and immediately speak with a Crisis Textline counselor trained to support people in crisis. You can also share Thorn’s resources for youth [insert link].

If the student is sextorting someone else.

Changing behavior, even if you recognize it is wrong, is not easy to do — and it is often not something that can be done alone. Become familiar with resources specifically for those who are working to change abusive behaviors. Students can connect with a peer advocate to find services available in their local area through Love is Respect at 1-866-331-9474. Additional resources for stopping abusive behavior are also available on the Love is Respect website.

While you want to be supportive of their efforts to change, be careful not to excuse their behavior. Instead, focus on how their abuse impacted the person they took advantage of, and connect them with resources that can offer support.

4. REPORT

Treat any information provided by the youth with respect and confidentiality. If your student is under 18, sextortion may fall under your state’s mandatory reporting laws. It is important that you understand your professional obligation to report, and that you communicate this obligation with your student. Follow your school protocol, and if your school’s protocol does not address sextortion, encourage your administration to consider its addition.

While there may be specific information you need to share as a result of mandatory reporting or your school protocol, you should only inform those who are required to know.

If the student is being sextorted.

If the images have been posted online or on a social media platform, you can help students report these images and have them removed. Most tech companies have information on how to make a report under their “safety” section. Images can also be reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). If a student is interested in making a report to law enforcement it is important that they do so before they ask the tech companies to remove their photos so that law enforcement can access all necessary evidence. Do not take screenshots or have the youth take screenshots of the images as that may be considered possession of child pornography.

Understand that reporting sextortion to law enforcement can be complicated. Some victims have reported that law enforcement was supportive and able to resolve the situation, while other victims have experienced negative consequences due to the illegal nature of the images.   

If the student is sextorting someone else.

It can be particularly difficult for a student to understand why, after disclosing their behavior and asking for help, they may still experience consequences for their actions. It may help to communicate to them that you have a professional — possibly legal — obligation to report if someone has or is being harmed. Remind them that though there could be consequences, they have taken a positive step to correct the situation and have provided an opportunity for the person they harmed to receive support.

Remember, when navigating these situations, it is important to remember that the safety and wellbeing of the victim is paramount.  


This post was co-published with Thorn, an anti-trafficking organization that partners across the tech industry, government and NGOs and leverages technology to combat predatory behavior, accelerate victim identification, and protect vulnerable children.

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