Montgomery police are investigating how middle school sexting photos were obtained

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010; B01

A Bethesda middle school student allegedly rented his iPod Touch to classmates who clicked through images of female classmates and other girls in various states of undress, according to Montgomery County police who are investigating the sexting at Pyle Middle School.

Last week, Pyle officials caught one of the students who paid to use the iPod and shut down the operation, Cpl. Daniel Friz said Friday. Since then, the iPod's owner has been identified, Friz said, and police are trying to determine how a middle school boy came to amass such a large collection of provocative images.

Montgomery police began investigating Thursday and are trying to determine whether any crimes were committed, Friz said. It is also unclear how much money changed hands, he said.

"From a middle school perspective, I can't imagine it would be very much," he said.

Students told school officials that the girls in the photos attend Pyle -- which has sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders -- and nearby Whitman High School, said Pyle Principal Michael Zarchin.

The girls seem to have willingly posed for the photos off school grounds and outside school hours, and then text-messaged or e-mailed the images to other students. The images have been passed around for several months at least, he said, and it does not appear that adults were involved.

Friz said detectives are working to identify and interview the girls in the images to learn how they were taken and distributed. The police want to make sure the girls were not coerced into posing.

The problem is, Friz said, most of the images are close-ups of body parts and there are not many faces.

"If you have a photo of only south of the border, you aren't going to do a lineup," Friz said.

Sexting -- the act of sending or receiving nude or nearly nude photos via text message -- has become a buzzword at middle and high schools as parents and administrators try to keep students from creating and distributing what in some cases could be considered child pornography. Just this month, the Pyle principal wrote a column about inappropriate ways students might use technology.

"I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for parents to monitor children's use of cell phones and the internet," Zarchin wrote. "Our students are at an age when they begin to test boundaries and make complex life decisions."

About one in seven American teens with cellphones reports having received nude or nearly nude photos by text message, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. But only 4 percent of students admitted to sending a naked image. Usually the photos are being sent to a boyfriend, girlfriend or crush, the study found.

Child pornography laws vary from state to state, but most are aimed at preventing adults from exploiting children, not disciplining children who share images among themselves. It can become a federal crime when a sexually explicit image of a child younger than 18 is transported across state lines, sent electronically by computer or downloaded, according to the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice's Web site. A department specialist declined to comment or delineate laws that might apply to sexting.

Last year, a teenage Fairfax County boy text-messaged girls and asked them to send photos of their breasts, leading to a visit from authorities. And a Fairfax prosecutor had to decide how to handle a case in which a school resource officer charged a 12-year-old and 14-year-old who were sending each other naked images and video.

The Pyle sexting investigation is being led by the police department's Family Crimes Division. Friz said this investigation will be a "test run" for county officers to learn how to handle sexting.

Among police and prosecutors this week, private conversation quickly veered into how difficult it has become for law enforcement, schools and laws to keep up with technology.

Twenty years ago, one officer said, if a student wanted to take an inappropriate photo of another student, there were many requirements: Find a camera and film, take the photo and take the film to be developed.

"And you still might get nailed coming out of the Fotomat," the officer said.

Staff writers Michael Birnbaum and Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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