Sex­ting probe at Vir­ginia schools

CASE IN­VOLVES A DOZEN TEENS Ex­plicit im­ages shared, posted on so­cial me­dia

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JUSTIN JOU­VE­NAL

A probe that be­gan with re­ports of nude pho­tos of stu­dents cir­cu­lat­ing at a mid­dle school has mush­roomed into a sex­ting in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volv­ing nearly a dozen stu­dents at two schools in Falls Church, Va., ac­cord­ing to a search war­rant.

No one has been charged in the case that cen­ters on Mary Ellen Hen­der­son Mid­dle School, but in­ves­ti­ga­tors with the Falls Church po­lice have re­cov­ered ex­plicit im­ages, dis­cov­ered some were posted on so­cial me­dia and learned one high school stu­dent ap­peared top­less dur­ing a live ses­sion on In­sta­gram, ac­cord­ing to the search war­rant.

The case pro­vides yet an­other win­dow into the per­va­sive­ness of sex­ting among teens and a sober­ing re­minder of how quickly ex­plicit im­ages can travel among stu­dents in the age of smart­phones and so­cial me­dia.

Un­der Vir­ginia law, teens who sext can be pros­e­cuted us­ing the state’s child porn charge, a felony that car­ries a min­i­mum five-year sen­tence. In prac­tice, how­ever, such cases more of­ten end with a plea to a lesser charge.

“The City Po­lice De­part­ment be­lieves that the health and wel­fare of all chil­dren and teens are very im­por­tant,” Falls Church Po­lice Chief Mary Gavin said. “We are tak­ing this in­ves­ti­ga­tion se­ri­ously and are be­ing sen­si­tive to the ages of the stu­dents in this case.”

In­ves­ti­ga­tors wrote that the probe be­gan April 26, when Hen­der­son’s as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal re­ported to a school re­source of­fi­cer that two stu­dents had been filmed fight­ing in mid-April and that nude pic­tures were be­ing shared by stu­dents.

The as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal also said a male stu­dent had re­cently bro­ken up with his girl­friend, who had sent him a nude pic­ture of her­self be­fore they split, ac­cord­ing to the search war­rant. Since no one has been charged and ju­ve­niles are in­volved, The Wash­ing­ton Post is not nam­ing the stu­dents.

The school re­source of­fi­cer in­ter­viewed the male stu­dent, who said he had sent his then-girl-

friend a photo of his pe­nis taken with his phone, ac­cord­ing to the search war­rant. In an in­ter­view, the girl told po­lice she had sent a nude im­age of her­self to the boyfriend.

After the pair had bro­ken up, the ex-girl­friend sent the im­age of the male stu­dent’s pe­nis to a se­cond male stu­dent via Snapchat, ac­cord­ing to the search war­rant.

The school re­source of­fi­cer in­ter­viewed the se­cond male stu­dent, who said that after he re­ceived the photo he posted it on Snapchat for about 10 min­utes, ac­cord­ing to the search war­rant. The se­cond male stu­dent told in­ves­ti­ga­tors that other stu­dents may have taken im­ages of the photo while it was posted on the so­cial me­dia site.

After re­mov­ing it from Snapchat, the se­cond male stu­dent sent the pe­nis photo to an­other fe­male stu­dent, ac­cord­ing to the search war­rant. The school re­source of­fi­cer searched the se­cond male stu­dent’s phone with his con­sent and found the pe­nis photo, along with an im­age of a fe­male’s bare breasts.

The se­cond male stu­dent said the lat­ter photo was of a ninth­grader at Ge­orge Ma­son High School in Falls Church and told po­lice he re­ceived it from a third male stu­dent at Hen­der­son, ac­cord­ing to the search war­rant.

That led po­lice to a third male stu­dent, who told in­ves­ti­ga­tors that the ninth-grader ex­posed her breasts dur­ing a live In­sta­gram ses­sion and he took an im­age of it, the war­rant says. The third male stu­dent ad­mit­ted to send­ing that im­age to the se­cond male stu­dent and an­other male stu­dent at Hen­der­son.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors then in­ter­viewed the ninth-grade stu­dent at Ge­orge Ma­son, who ad­mit­ted that she made a video ex­pos­ing her breasts. When her phone was searched, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found an ex­plicit video of a male ninth­grader at Ge­orge Ma­son, ac­cord­ing to the search war­rant.

In all, in­ves­ti­ga­tors seized five stu­dent phones, which were ex­am­ined foren­si­cally for ev­i­dence.

A school sys­tem rep­re­sen­ta­tive did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

There have been a num­ber of high-pro­file cases of stu­dents at North­ern Vir­ginia schools shar­ing ex­plicit im­ages in re­cent years.

In 2014, po­lice said a McLean High School stu­dent posted more than 50 im­ages of fe­male stu­dents on­line.

The same year, Manas­sas po­lice gen­er­ated con­tro­versy by ob­tain­ing a search war­rant for a photo of a teen’s erect pe­nis as part of a sex­ting case be­tween mi­nors. After an out­cry, the re­quest was dropped.

The rise of sex­ting has prompted var­i­ous at­tempts by state leg­is­la­tors to make sex­ting among mi­nors a mis­de­meanor rather than child pornog­ra­phy, but the bills have never made it into law. A num­ber of other states have passed such laws.

Jonathan Phillips, a for­mer Fair­fax County prose­cu­tor who has han­dled many sex­ting cases as a de­fense at­tor­ney, said Vir­ginia’s law needs to change, too.

“The tide has con­tin­ued to move in the right di­rec­tion on a na­tional level, but that hasn’t hap­pened here,” Phillips said. “There still needs to be an an­swer for cops, pros­e­cu­tors and par­ents who are go­ing to court that is not a felony.”

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