The photos were supposed to stay just between friends.
There was the one of the girls in their Thomas S. Wootton High School varsity cheerleading uniforms during practice. There was a shot of the whole squad. And then there were the pictures of some of the girls pretending to kiss and striking provocative poses -- and that's what got them into trouble.
Parents and students at the Rockville high school were horrified when the dozen or so photos popped up on a pornographic Web site in November, endangering the squad's chances of participating in an annual competition and raising questions about privacy and propriety.
Several of the cheerleaders had been taking photos of the squad along with personal pictures throughout the school year and posting them on the online photo-sharing site Webshots.com, parents and school officials said. The pictures were intended for their friends and other girls on the squad but were publicly accessible, along with more than 134 million others posted by the site's users.
On Nov. 22, Wootton Principal Michael J. Doran said he received an anonymous e-mail that included the personal and team photos of the cheerleaders and alerted him that the pictures were featured on a pornographic Web site.
Doran said that the girls were clothed in all of the photos and that none of the photos was graphic. He described six of the pictures as "girls goofing."
That afternoon after cheerleading practice, school officials called a meeting with five of the girls involved, said one parent, who did not want to be identified for fear of embarrassing her daughter, who was in the photographs. The team would not be allowed to participate in the county cheerleading competition because of the photos, she said administrators told her daughter.
"Out of context, it looked very ugly," the parent said. "It was kind of a traumatic event at the time."
The parent said she visited the Web site that night and noticed that the pictures had been posted the day before. The site, which included a mix of the cheerleaders' pictures and pornographic images, advertised the girls as being at least 18 years old. Doran said that the site also requested payment to learn more about the cheerleaders but that no other pictures or information was given.
The parent said she e-mailed the unknown person who posted the pictures, demanding that they be removed. "It was just ugly," she said. "You just go, 'Oh my God, my daughter's on that site.' "
But she was too late. Word had gotten around school. One cheerleader, who also asked not to be identified but was not in the provocative photos, said that students were calling the squad "sluts."
"It was a wasted week," that cheerleader's mother said. "The instant messages and everything else were flying that week. Nobody got anything done."
Parents and school officials said it is unclear who posted the photos to the pornographic site and who sent the anonymous e-mail to the principal. The parent of the cheerleader in the provocative photos said that she called police and the state's attorney about launching investigations but was told that because the pictures were not pornographic themselves, nothing could be done.
Martha Papalia, vice president of corporate communications for CNET Networks, which owns Webshots.com, said the posting of the pictures on the pornographic site is "a violation of our posted policies."
But Jordana Beebe, communications director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse consumer information group, said it is nearly impossible for Webshots.com to track all copyright infringements -- or even tell when one occurs. "We're in a new technological age," she said. "These are the days where images can be sent anywhere digitally, and it's difficult to know whose hands they get into."
One parent said that she visited the site weekly for about a month after the pictures were posted and that they never disappeared. Doran, however, said the entire pornographic site was shut down several weeks ago. The girls' pictures also were removed from Webshots.com, both the parent and Doran said.
The events caused a temporary rift among the cheerleaders, with several of the girls breaking down in tears after the meeting with school officials, according to the parents and the cheerleader who was not in the photos. However, the squad members eventually were allowed to take part in the county's regional competition the first weekend in December and have rebuilt their friendships, the parents and student said.
"The message that we preach to our kids that might be listened to now is the lesson of privacy and how much that has changed now," Doran said. "You shouldn't send anything to anybody that you don't want the world to see."