CAñON CITY» No charges will be filed in a sexting scandal that involved scores of middle and high school students who took and traded nude photos of one another, prosecutors said Wednesday.
The decision came even as authorities say they gathered enough evidence to pursue criminal allegations against several of the 106 teens identified in the case.
“I think the investigation suggests that (this) was something the children didn’t understand,” 11th Judicial District Attorney Thomas LeDoux said at a news conference. “The investigation suggests these were kids doing stupid kid things.”
The scandal drew national attention and shed light on the difficulty of dealing with the seriousness of sexting and the need to protect young people from a potential felony conviction.
Wednesday’s announcement puts to rest brewing fears in the community of legal impacts on their children. Prosecutors say there were no “aggravating” factors discovered in the investigation, including any adult involvement, coercion, bullying or posting of pictures to the Internet. Authorities, however, gave a stern warning to students who might still have nude photographs linked to the case or who sext again, explaining that any future infractions could lead to prosecution.
“To the kids who feel like maybe this decision indicates that what they did was (appropriate), that’s not the case.” LeDoux said. “It is against the law.”
Three police detectives spent a month investigating the scandal and discovered 351 images, most of which were of girls and hidden on “ghost” cellphone applications.
Investigators say they were able to identify only three children from the photos because many pictures had no faces or were of poor quality. Only six students with identified involvement in the case agreed to speak with police.
School officials have requested a copy of the investigation and say they plan to consider administrative action against implicated students, several of whom were initially suspended in early November.
“There may be some appropriate, thoughtful individual consequences,” said Cañon City Schools Superintendent George Welsh. “We’re not going to rush to that.”
Authorities say they will send letters to the parents of every student identified as being involved.
The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council has revamped efforts to push for new legislation related to child pornography. Prosecutors have said the state’s child pornography laws are outdated and give them few tools to deal with juvenile sexting.
Under a strict reading of Colorado law, any teen who takes, shares or receives a nude photo of someone younger than 18 — even consensually — has committed a child pornography offense, legal experts say. Welsh said current legislation forces prosecutors to use analog rules to deal with a digital issue. Cañon City Police Chief Paul Schultz pointed to similar investigations in New York, Illinois and North Carolina as proof of the widespread problem.
“It’s not just in Cañon City,” he said. “It’s a nationwide issue.”
The sexting was made public after Cañon City High School’s football team forfeited its final game when several members of the squad were implicated in the photo sharing.
Prosecutors say the move not to file charges came with the understanding that school officials will educate students, teachers and parents on sexting. The district has been working on those efforts since the problem emerged.
Middle school students were getting a lesson on the dangers of sexting on Wednesday as the news conference on the investigation was being held. District officials say they have solicited help from the Air Force Academy to teach the town’s student-athletes about appropriate social media use. Counseling is being offered to students involved. Officials worried the stress of the sexting spotlight and the possibility of life-changing consequences might lead students to harm themselves.
“We are having some kids counseled about the decision they made,” Welsh said. “This is not going to define them one way or the other.” At least one mother questioned whether the lack of punishment was the right call. Barbara Penezic, whose 16-year-old daughter left Cañon City High School last year, said after the news conference that she feels a message should have been sent. “They needed to have consequences,” Penezic said. “They needed to know if you break the law — if you break the rules — you have to pay.” Jesse Paul: 303-954-1733, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JesseAPaul