DENVER (Reuters/AFP) - A massive sexting ring is rocking a high school in Colorado, with at least 100 students trading nude pictures and posting them on social media, news reports said on Friday (Oct 6).
Some of the kids in the photographs were as young as 12, and included eighth graders from the middle school, The New York Times reported.
The students, many of whom are on the football team at Canon City High School, could now face criminal charges, reports said.
The widespread circulation of hundreds of sexually explicit photos among students at a Colorado high school via text messages has triggered a criminal investigation, multiple suspensions and the forfeiture of a football game, officials said on Friday (Oct 6).
The authorities in Canon City, about 145km south-west of Denver, said at a news conference that following a tip, nude, semi-nude or sexually suggestive images were uncovered at the 1,100-student Canon City High School.
Canon City Police Chief Paul Schultz said investigators seized a phone containing "several hundred" inappropriate photographs from a student at Canon City High School. "We will be attempting to identify the people and make our best determination if there have been any violations of the law," Mr Schultz said.
The school district announced on Wednesday that "a number of our students have engaged in behavior where they take and pass along pictures of themselves that expose private parts of their bodies or their undergarments".
Canon City School Superintendent George Welsh said the district has previously dealt with sexting, the exchange of inappropriate messages or pictures over social media via a smart phone. "There isn't a school in the United States that hasn't dealt with the issue of sexting," Mr Welsh said. "What's different about this is that it's large scale."
Mr Welsh said the school has suspended multiple students, but citing privacy laws, declined to provide further details.
Mr Schultz said investigators are waiting for search warrants before viewing the images, but school officials did look at them because they are allowed wider latitude to search items on school property.
Mr Welsh said once he became aware of the issue on Monday, he gave the district's athletic director and the school's football coach 24 hours to assure him that no football players were involved, which they could not do. "We then made the decision to forfeit the game," he said, which was the team's final game of the season.
Fremont County District Attorney Tom LeDoux said once the investigation is substantially completed in about 30 days, his office will decide whether any criminal charges are warranted.
If any of the students are over 18, they could face adult rather than juvenile charges where the penalties are stiffer, Mr LeDoux said, adding that each instance will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Aggravating factors that could determine whether charges are filed include whether any sexual contact was involved, whether anyone was coerced into taking photos, or whether there was any threats of retaliation for reporting the incident, he said.
"We're not aware that any of those things have happened... It's possible no criminal charges could be filed," Mr LeDoux said.
Students circulated up to 400 lewd photographs, according to reports.
The police probe is focusing on whether any adults were involved, the school district said.
Students used password-protected "phone vaults", apps that often appear to be simple calculators at first glance, to hide the photos from their parents and school officials.
"It's been going on for years," one Canon City student told KRDO13, an affiliate of ABC television.
The student said some fellow students, especially girls, had been pressured to take pictures of themselves.
The school administration held an assembly on Thursday to warn parents and explain the technology that allows their children to hide photos.
Mr Schultz said the problem extends far beyond the town limits.
"With the new technologies, this is happening everywhere," he said. "Should parents be worried? Absolutely."