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4 students' phones seized in sexting investigation

10:25 PM, Feb 14, 2012   |    comments
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9Wants to Know has learned this is at least the second school sexting investigation in Douglas County in the last six months.

Douglas County Sheriff's deputies served search warrants at Chaparral High School Tuesday afternoon.

9NEWS has learned deputies took at least four students' cellphones and they'll be searching those phones for evidence of sexting.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office got a tip about lewd photos and text messages circulating around Chaparral High School in Parker.

Deputies arrived just before school let out for the day and confiscated the phones from the students who may be involved.

Nobody was arrested Tuesday.

Lt. Glen Pikesmeyer says the investigation is in the early stages.

Pikesmeyer says everyone involved is high school aged and the reason deputies came to the high school is because that is where the cell phones were. He says investigators hope by seizing the phones, they can stop the pictures from going any further, if indeed they do exist. Sexting is generally the exchange of sexual content via text message.

"This has been going on ever since people have been able to send messages and pictures via cell phone. Kids have to be aware of what they're sending out. Once it gets out there, it can stay out there. It'll just go viral," Pikesmeyer said.

One student named Amy, who asked us not to use her last name, says a lot of students are sexting without realizing these potentially humiliating pictures could end up anywhere.

"Usually it's like sports bra and shorts and sometimes not their face. And depending on the girl it gets really graphic and gross. I don't think they think anyone is going to find out. In middle school, this girl sent a picture to this guy naked and he sent it to all of his guy friends and it just spread," Amy said.

9Wants to Know uncovered another Douglas County search warrant involving sexting. Last fall, deputies seized eight cellphones from Cresthill Middle School in Highlands Ranch.

According to the warrant, a young girl sent nude pictures of herself to another student and they quickly circulated.

A similar case in Colorado Springs in February 2010 led to the suspension of several middle school students.

"They just send bad pictures and usually teachers don't find out but kids do," Amy said.

A survey cited by the Colorado Sex Offender management board says 20 percent of teens and 33 percent of young adults say they've sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves - many because of pressure from a guy or girl.

A later study published in the journal Pediatrics, estimates the sexting rate to be much lower. The study found 1 percent of minors over age 10 had taken "explicit" pictures of themselves or someone else and 5.9 percent received such pictures.

More than 9 percent of minors between 10 and 17 said they appeared in, created, or received "sexually suggestive" images that may not have involved nudity, according to the study.

Dr. Scott Humphreys, a Forensic Psychiatrist, emailed 9NEWS and says he believes the later study provides a more accurate view of the teen sexting rate.

"The phenomenon of teen sexting caught us all by surprise. For years there was a vacuum of knowledge regarding this behavior. In my estimation, there are two dangers in misrepresenting sexting as common. One, it terrifies parents - although a rate of 1 to 5 percent is certainly concerning - and, two, it normalizes this behavior. If teens think 1/5 kids are doing this, they are less concerned about being considered unusual," Humphreys said.

Randy Barber, public information officer for the Douglas County School District, did not give specific details about either Douglas County sexting case.

"We're cooperating with the investigation by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. They did serve some search warrants here today and we're certainly waiting to see what that investigation will bring. Our biggest priority is making sure that students are safe," Barber said.

If deputies find evidence of sexting, the students involved could be charged with sexual exploitation of a child. If convicted of the class 6 felony, penalties range from fines of $1,000 to $100,000, all the way up to two years in jail.

Sexting is considered a sex crime in Colorado and cases are handled on a case-by-case basis. Investigations involving minors sexting to other minors are handled differently than cases where adults are in possession of lewd photos of underage children. The legal definition of a child in these cases is anyone under the age of 18.

9NEWS Legal Analyst Scott Robinson says a conviction on related charges could have lifelong consequences, including being labeled a sex offender if they are convicted.

Robinson says there is a difference between sending a sexting message and innocently receiving one, but if you are part of a larger group who on more than one occasion passes around these kinds of messages you could be considered part of a conspiracy which could carry the same stiff penalties.

According to Colorado laws, sexting is considered child pornography. Whenever nude photographs of a minor are distributed to others, the laws protecting children from pornography and exploitation come into play, making "sexting" very much a sex crime. It is considered a felony, which means county prosecutors will be forced to treat them accordingly, whether they want to or not.

Amy hopes this incident will serve as a warning to students who think about sexting.

"Don't do it. Have more respect for yourself," Amy said.

(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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