My Students. My Cellphone. My Ordeal.

By Ting-Yi Oei
Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Channel 4 Newsbreak was meant to shock: "High school assistant principal in Loudoun County arrested for child pornography," announced WRC's Jim Vance. "Details following the Olympics."

That was last Aug. 20. The assistant principal was me. And the story on the late evening news that night was how many people who knew me -- and countless others in the Washington area who didn't -- learned that I was the subject of a prosecution that over the past year has turned my life upside down and ruined my reputation and my career. Although all the charges against me were recently thrown out of court, my experience is a warning for all educators who find themselves trying to negotiate the slippery terrain where rapidly advancing technology intersects with risky adolescent behavior.

My ordeal began in March of last year, when a teacher at my school, Loudoun County's Freedom High, told me about a rumor that students were sending nude pictures of themselves to one another on their cellphones. We've all heard a lot about "sexting" lately, but a year ago the phenomenon was new to me and, I'd venture to say, to most school officials. Because administrators' first concern is our students' safety and well-being, it was my responsibility to look into the matter.

I called a student I thought likely to have such a picture into my office. In the presence of the school's safety and security official, he quickly admitted that he did. He pulled out his phone and showed us an image of the torso of a woman wearing underpants, with her arms crossed over her breasts. Her head was not in the picture. The 17-year-old student claimed not to know who the young woman was or who had sent him the photo.

I immediately took the picture to the principal, who instructed me to transfer it to my office computer in case we needed it later. Being unfamiliar with camera features on cellphones, I asked the school's technology resource teacher for help, but he didn't have an immediate solution. The student then said that he could text the picture to my cellphone. That left the problem of getting it to my computer, whereupon the boy said that I could send the picture to my school e-mail address.

In hindsight, of course, he could have sent it directly to my computer himself. But it never occurred to me that my actions could be regarded as suspect: I was conducting a legitimate school investigation with children's welfare in mind, and I did so in the presence and with the full knowledge of other school officials.

I interviewed more students with the security specialist, but we found no more pictures and were unable to identify the woman in the photo. We concluded that she probably wasn't a student at the school. I reported our findings to the principal and assumed that the matter was closed.

I left the building quickly that day -- the start of spring break -- to join my wife, Diane, at a doctor's office to discuss her upcoming surgery for a potentially malignant tumor. I told her about the sexting photo, but we had other things on our minds. When I returned to school two days after break ended, I confronted a new problem: The boy with the photo on his cell was now in trouble for having pulled a girl's pants down in class (another teen phenomenon known as "flagging"). I informed his mother that I was suspending him, and in the discussion I also told her about the earlier incident. She was outraged that I hadn't reported it to her at the time. She called me at home that night at 10 p.m. and again at 7 a.m. the next morning, agitated and demanding that the suspension be revoked and threatening to involve an attorney. I told her as calmly as I could that the suspension was for the deliberate act of pulling down the girl's pants. A couple of days later, after an appeal hearing with the principal and me, she shouted at me, "I'll see you in court!"

I was concerned about her anger, but I'd dealt with many outraged parents before and knew how emotional they could get when they heard bad news about their children's behavior.

I wasn't worried when a few days later, two sheriff's investigators came to school. They said that they were investigating a parental complaint and asked me whether I knew anything about photos being sent around on cellphones. I told them about our investigation and volunteered to show them the one photo it had turned up. I couldn't find the file where I'd saved it on my computer but then remembered that it was still on my cell. Good thing I'd kept it there, I thought at the time. I didn't know how to retrieve it (I'd never used the photo functions), so I handed the phone to one of the investigators. They didn't tell me that I was under investigation, nor did they confiscate my cell.

The police later learned the identity of the students involved in the sexting, although they never told me that directly. The person in the photo, who turned out to be a 16-year-old at Freedom, later apologized for having lied to me, and the father of the boy who took the picture called to apologize as well.

Then, a full month later, in May, I was charged with "failure to report suspected child abuse." I was stunned. I swiftly contacted the Loudoun Education Association, told them everything, and got a lawyer. A few hours later the school system placed me on paid administrative leave.

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