US students trade naked photos as part of sexting ring

Over 100 high school kids involved; debate by authorities over filing child porn charges

CANON CITY (Colorado) • At least 100 students at a high school in Canon City traded naked pictures of themselves, the authorities have said, part of a large sexting ring.

The revelation has left parents outraged, administrators searching for missed clues and the police and the district attorney's office debating whether to file child pornography charges, including felony charges, against some of the participants.

Mr George Welsh, the superintendent of the Canon City school system, said students at Canon City High School had been circulating 300 to 400 nude photographs, including images of "certainly over 100 different kids", on their cellphones.

"This is a lot of kids involved," he said on Friday, adding that the children in the pictures were believed to be students at the high school as well as eighth-graders from the middle school.

Members of the high school football team, the Canon City Tigers, were at the centre of the sexting ring, Mr Welsh said. On Thursday night, separate community meetings were held for parents of football players and parents of other students to address the scandal, which has shocked this quiet, semi-rural community of 16,000. The team was forced to forfeit its final game of the season.

Because it is a felony to possess or distribute child pornography, the charges could be serious. But because most of the people at fault are themselves minors and, in some cases, took pictures of themselves and sent them to others, law enforcement officials are at a loss as to how to proceed.

"Consenting adults can do this to their hearts' content," said Mr Thom LeDoux, the district attorney, but "if the subject is under the age of 18, that's a problem".

He added that he was not interested in arresting hundreds of children and would "use discretion" if he decided to file charges.

Mr Welsh said a significant percentage of the student body at Canon City High School had participated, with boys and girls involved in seemingly equal numbers. The photo-sharing, some of which took place in school, was done largely on cellphone applications called "vault apps" that look innocent enough - some look like calculators - but are really secret troves of photographs accessible after entering a password.

Students at the school described a competitive point system that classmates used to accrue photographs. Different point values were assigned to different students. Students who collected naked photographs gained points by adding these desirable children to their collections.

The "sexting scandal", as parents are calling it, has elicited anger from parents who say they knew about this type of photo-sharing for years and sought unsuccessfully to get school officials to intervene.

Ms Heidi Wolfgang, 41, a mother who no longer lives in the district, said she had spoken to a Canon City Middle School counsellor in 2012 after she found photographs of a nude adolescent on a cellphone owned by her daughter, then 12.

"He told me there was nothing the school could do because half the school was sexting," Ms Wolfgang said. She called the response "heartbreaking" and said she eventually decided to educate her child at home.

Another mother, Ms Lisa Graham, 46, said her daughter, now a junior at the high school, had been "propositioned by multiple guys" during her freshman year.

"She received unsolicited photos from guys, which she immediately deleted," Ms Graham said.

"I'm frustrated if people knew and didn't shut it down three years ago." NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'US students trade naked photos as part of sexting ring'. Print Edition | Subscribe