How Did an Innocent Act by a Loudoun Educator Lead to Child-Pornography Charges?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

TOLD THAT a judge was dismissing all charges against him, Virginia educator Ting-Yi Oei had just one thought: "Hallelujah." Given his nightmarish prosecution on child pornography charges, it was an understandable, even restrained, reaction. What's not understandable is why criminal charges were ever brought against an unassuming assistant high school principal who was just trying to do his job. Loudoun County residents are right to wonder about the unsettling circumstances of this case and to demand better answers.

The details of the case, as related by Mr. Oei in The Post's Outlook section, center on the relatively new phenomenon of "sexting," whereby teens distribute provocative, even nude, pictures of each other on their cellphones. Mr. Oei was investigating rumors of the practice at Freedom High School when a student admitted to having a photo of a semi-clothed girl. The picture was transferred to Mr. Oei's cellphone and computer as part of his investigation and with the apparent knowledge of other school officials. Mr. Oei said school officials were unable to identify the girl, and the investigation ended -- until the boy got in new trouble and was suspended and his angry mother went to the county sheriff's office. The office identified the girl and ended up charging Mr. Oei with a misdemeanor count of failure to report suspicion of child abuse. Rather than dropping this baseless charge, county prosecutor James E. Plowman went before a grand jury and secured an indictment on felony charges of possession of child pornography. Loudoun Circuit Judge Thomas D. Horne recently threw out all charges, ruling that the image wasn't sexually explicit enough to constitute child pornography.

Mr. Plowman disputes Mr. Oei's claim that the girl couldn't be identified and questions why the young man's parents weren't notified. Clearly, there is a feeling by county law enforcement that school officials were not taking seriously reports of inappropriate student behavior. Perhaps they have a point in that sheriff's deputies were easily able to identify the girl and presumably notify her parents. But that's not a criminal offense. Surely, authorities could have communicated their concern in a way that didn't single out and unfairly punish an educator with an unblemished record of service.

The biggest loss, though, is to the community. Will teachers and administrators hesitate in the future to exercise their rightful authority for fear of vengeful parents and zealous prosecutors? And, it's a shame -- as Mr. Oei pointed out in his Outlook piece -- that parents, students, schools and law enforcement missed out on having a meaningful discussion about what to do about the problem of sexting.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company