My Students. My Cellphone. My Ordeal.

By Ting-Yi Oei
Sunday, April 19, 2009; B01

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.

I took some comfort in the fact that the charge appeared baseless: Who would have thought that photo constituted child abuse? Virginia law and school policy require that certain offenses -- having drugs or weapons on school grounds, physical violence that causes injuries, bomb threats -- be reported to law enforcement. But this incident didn't fit into any of those categories. Nor could I see how peers taking consensual photos of each other would constitute child abuse, especially since we hadn't even been able to determine that there were minors involved. Moreover, even if the sexting could somehow have been considered child abuse, I'd done what I was supposed to do by law, which was to tell "the person in charge of the institution," i.e., my principal, about it.

In the summer, I got word that Commonwealth's Attorney James Plowman was dropping the "failure to report" charge. But then he reneged and threatened that if I didn't resign, I would face child pornography charges. Still, no indictment came in July, the "failure to report" charge was dismissed, and I went back to work.

I heard a rumor three weeks later that I'd been indicted. I contacted my lawyer, who left messages with prosecutors and said that if it was true, I wanted to turn myself in. Diane, concerned when we heard nothing back after two days, developed chest pains and shortness of breath, and I rushed her to the emergency room on the night of Aug. 19. She was still in the hospital after a night of observation when I phoned her the following morning with the devastating news that I was under arrest.

Aug. 20 was the first day for teachers to report back to school. An hour into the morning, the school's police officer called me out of a meeting. In my office, he told me that he had to arrest me. I was unnerved and started trembling so badly that I couldn't button my shirtsleeves. After letting me call Diane, the officer led me out to his police car, handcuffed me and drove me to the county jail. Several hours later, I was released on my own recognizance.

How had this happened to me? The same day, The Washington Post ran a story online, accompanied by a huge mug shot of me. Within a few hours, the Web site had also posted a photo and article. The next morning, after breakfast, a local Fox News reporter showed up at our door with an accompanying sound truck. Microphone in hand, she knocked and asked me to talk. Shaken, I closed the door. The witch hunt was on in full force.

I was furious that the sheriff's department, by its own admission, had never even investigated the original incident. No one interviewed the principal until after my lawyer demanded that they do so. They'd simply taken the word of a disgruntled parent. Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Nicole Wittmann also admitted publicly that there was no new information relating to the pornography charge. "We just feel very strongly that this is not someone who should be in the Loudoun County school system," she said, a sentiment she repeated in the final court hearing.

Anger wasn't my only emotion. The anxiety and sleeplessness I'd felt after the first charge worsened. So did the sense of isolation. For two years, I'd shared my cancer experiences with a colleague as he suffered from the disease. I was crushed when he told me later that he'd asked twice about contacting me but had been discouraged from doing so. But Diane kept me going, along with friends, family and my Quaker community. People I hadn't heard from in years offered support.

Yet I also encountered doubt and skepticism. A friend of decades inquired whether there was something I wasn't telling him. Another told me how years before, he'd unquestioningly supported a colleague facing a similar charge, only to find that his trust had been betrayed. "You wouldn't do that to me again, would you?" was the unspoken question. Still, once reassured, both stuck with me, attending hearing after hearing.

Although I felt pressure along the way to cave and accept a deal, I absolutely refused to do it. My resolve only strengthened after the prosecutor's office upped the ante with two additional misdemeanor charges.

On March 31, I was on the road with my wife when my lawyer called. I pulled, appropriately enough, into a church parking lot to hear the news: A judge had dismissed all the charges. All I could think was, "Hallelujah!"

And so my legal ordeal is done, but I still ask myself: Did anyone benefit from all this? I have to put the pieces of my life and career back together. My wife and I were terrorized by a baseless prosecution, lost all our savings and were forced to borrow huge sums of money to pay for my defense. The students involved probably could have put this ill-advised sexting adventure behind them a long time ago. Instead, they had to wonder for months whether they'd have to testify in court and bring attention to themselves and their families. And a meaningful discussion about sexting and what schools, parents, the community and law enforcement can do about it has been sidetracked for more than a year by a prosecutor who should never have brought charges in the first place.

Looking back, I'm not surprised by the students' behavior. But I struggle to understand how my actions in performing my job could have been so badly misconstrued. It also disturbs me that, in our legal system, the truth can apparently get in the way of "justice." I can no longer look at the power of prosecutors and our justice system the way I once did.

As for moving forward, that's easier said than done. I remember myself four years ago, when I helped open Freedom High School, and I think about all that I've missed over the past year. I missed last year's graduation. I missed watching our girls' basketball team win the state championship. I missed the camaraderie of colleagues. I missed doing the job I love -- working with young people and watching them grow.

This June, the first class to go through all four years at Freedom will graduate. I hope to be there with the students as their assistant principal. But it will be a bittersweet event.

Ting-Yi Oei has been a Northern Virginia teacher and school administrator for more than 30 years.

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