More than 100 students involved in a sexting scandal at a southern Colorado high school will not face criminal charges, a prosecutor announced Wednesday in a case that illustrated the digitally saturated reality of sexting cases across the country.
Fremont County District Attorney Thom LeDoux said the investigation into the scandal at Canon City High School failed to show any adults were involved. None of the 351 images were posted to the Internet, and there was no evidence of coercion or bullying, LeDoux said.
Some 106 children were involved in some way in the exchanges of explicit photos. An unknown number of students were suspended when the scandal broke in November, and the high school football team forfeited its last game of the season because players were involved. Police said students used a cellphone app that hid the photos.
Some students could have faced charges that would have required them to register as sex offenders. The possession of explicit photos of minors is a felony in Colorado, which, like many states, has not updated laws intended to fight adult exploitation of children for the smartphone age.
LeDoux said the decision not to prosecute doesn't condone what the students did and that his office is sending warning letters to all 106 students involved. A total of about 1,000 students attend Canon City High.
He also said the Fremont County School District would offer education about sexting to both students and their parents.
The law in Colorado and many other states considers explicit photos of minors to be child pornography and requires school employees to contact police the moment they learn of it. School officials complained they couldn't offer counseling to students worried about the scandal because they'd have to report those otherwise confidential conversations.
Some teens, parents and legal experts say law enforcement should adapt to the reality that sexting is increasingly common among teens — about 28 percent of them, according to a recent study by Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Temple maintains that sexting is a new form of flirting and mostly happens between teens who are in a relationship or want to be. The behavior is best addressed by parents talking to their children about healthy relationships and boundaries, he said.
Last year in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a boyfriend and girlfriend who exchanged nude selfies at 16 were charged as adults, with felony sexual exploitation of a minor. Their charges were reduced to misdemeanors following an uproar.
In September, the Associated Press reported on the legal quandary of when does sexting become child born:
The Fayetteville teens were accused of being both the victims of child pornography and the perpetrators of the crime. And under a quirk in the law, the legal system treated them as adults for purposes of prosecuting them, but also considered them minors by deeming their selfies child pornography.
The case illustrates the quandary authorities face with sexting cases. Most states have yet to update child pornography laws to account for minors who are caught exchanging explicit selfies. The laws, some written decades ago, carry stiff penalties including prison time and a requirement to register as a sex offender.
In November, two 14-year-old boys on New York's Long Island were arrested on felony child porn charges after one was accused of recording the other having sex with a girl. As many as 20 students at another school were suspended for either sending or watching the video.
In Greenbrier, Tennessee, 16 students were charged last month with sexual exploitation of a minor after exchanging explicit photos on their cellphones.
This story has been corrected to show that the district attorney's name is Thom LeDoux.