By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
In Fairfax County, a teenage boy sent out a text message asking girls to send photos of their breasts. Word got out at his high school, police said, and when authorities tracked the teen down, they discovered a cache of naked images on his phone.
Thus began another investigation into "sexting" -- sending sexually explicit photos by cellphone -- and another deliberation about when adolescent impulsiveness and indiscretion become a serious criminal act. Some of the photos could qualify as child pornography, a felony in Virginia, police said.
"He thought it was a mischievous, fun game, without realizing he was asking these girls to commit a crime and he was committing a crime," said Sgt. Bill Fulton of the Fairfax Police Department.
The sexting phenomenon, which has alarmed parents and educators, is also raising an array of practical questions about how police and prosecutors should respond and what the long-term fallout could be for children.
Locally, the issue appears to have hit a tipping point in public concern. In Fairfax, police organized a community meeting April 20 with a flier that said: "Sexting: It is here. It is destroying lives. Is your teen sending racy photos using their cellphone?"
"This whole phenomenon seems to have exploded in the last 60 days," said John McCarthy, the state's attorney for Montgomery County, who said prosecutors across Maryland have exchanged ideas about the troubling trend.
The problem, he said, is that child porn laws never contemplated "children sharing images of themselves," and youthful sexters have little concept of their actions as a crime. "You can literally see the shock on their faces," McCarthy said.
Nationally, sexting cases have made it into headlines, legislatures and courtrooms. In some states, juveniles have faced the possibility of criminal charges. In Florida, an 18-year-old was listed on a sex offender registry. In Vermont and Ohio, lawmakers have drafted sexting-related bills.
In Fairfax, Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said his office is handling a case in which school resource officers charged a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old who were sending naked images and video. But Morrogh described most sexting as "juvenile bad judgment" and said he is "not keen on lumping school kids in with child pornographers."
Fairfax police typically confer with prosecutors on cases, which may lead to counseling and education, or to juvenile court. The trend is new enough, said Morrogh, that "it's sort of evolving." With child pornography laws written for adults who prey on children, "we're sort of pounding a square peg into a round hole with these cases."
"Obviously we are not going to lock up two teens for doing this to each other, but we do want them to understand it's a crime and a dangerous activity," he said.
At the Stafford County Sheriff's Office, deputies have tracked cases for a second school year, with 14 reports in 2007-08 and at least 19 this school year. Said Detective Darryl Wells: "It's not just high school and middle school. It's now getting into elementary school as well."
The problem has far-reaching ramifications. Police, prosecutors and advocates point to the chilling example of 18-year-old Jessie Logan of Cincinnati, whose family said she was so tormented after a photo of her was circulated that she hanged herself in her bedroom last July.
Her mother, Cynthia, said the problem started when her only child sent the nude picture to her boyfriend, who later flipped it to friends. "It just went to hundreds and hundreds of phones," Logan said. The ensuing "character assassination" was so relentless, she said, "I think she just snapped."
"She would not have killed herself if they had left her alone," Cynthia Logan said.
Jessie's story became the poignant opening of the recent community meeting in Fairfax. "We're hoping to prevent this nightmare scenario from happening to your kids," said Marc MacDonald, a school resource officer at Hayfield Secondary School.
Sexters are often "the good kids," police said, with strong grades, involved parents and no criminal history. Many send photos without grasping that they could be widely circulated or posted on the Internet in view of strangers, predators and potential colleges and employers.
Sexting has had other unanticipated effects. In Loudoun County, Ting-Yi Oei, 60, an assistant principal at Freedom High School, said he had never heard the term when he and a school security specialist investigated a teacher's report in March 2008 of a risqué photo being circulated by students.
Ultimately, Oei was arrested on child pornography charges for possessing the photo he had investigated. Recently a judge dismissed the case, ruling that the image on his cellphone and computer was not child pornography. But Oei said the episode cost him his reputation, career and savings. "These incidents have consequences that none of us, young or old, could have dreamed of a few years back," he said.
In Spotsylvania County, two youths, ages 18 and 15, are now facing child pornography charges in a sexting case amid allegations that they solicited explicit photos from at least three girls, including one in elementary school. The case followed a spate of sexting in schools.
"We decided to charge someone to send a message and slow it down or stop it," said Commonwealth's Attorney William F. Neely, who described the incident as particularly egregious. "These boys were collecting the pictures like baseball cards," he said.
Neely said he was not trying to give the offenders felony records, but sexting, he said, "seems to be growing in numbers and growing out of control."
In Fairfax, cases include one in which an eighth-grade girl sent a photo of herself "engaged in a sexual act" to a 16-year-old boyfriend. Another involved a middle school student who stole a high school student's phone and sent the naked images he found on it to the owner's mother.
For those prosecuted, landing on a sex offender registry is possible. At 18, Phillip Alpert made the list in Florida after e-mailing his girlfriend's explicit photos to those on her contact list.
Alpert said he did it in a fit of bad judgment when he was upset in the middle of the night. "I understand what I did was wrong. I hurt this girl I was madly in love with," he said. But after being classified as a sex offender, Alpert was kicked out of community college, he said. He cannot live with his father, whose home is too close to a school. He is required to attend weekly group counseling sessions with sex offenders.
He said he still asks himself: "Where did I even get this idea?"