Police in Schools

If a School Cop Threatens Your 13-Year-Old with Child Porn Charges for Sexting, Get a Lawyer

Families should never consent to have school resource officers search kids' phones.

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Phone
Isabella Antonelli / Dreamstime

Teen sexting stories are filled with kids who had no clue they were breaking the law when they swapped inappropriate photos of their own bodies—and with parents who didn't realize they couldn't trust the school or the cops to be reasonable. Carl was determined not to be one of those parents.

Last November, Carl received a call from Ms. Martin, an assistant principal at the middle school attended by his two sons, ages 13 and 12. Martin said the older son, Tommy, had shared a sexually inappropriate Snapchat image with some other students at the school. (I'm using pseudonyms for the people in this story and have not contacted the school, out of concern that Carl's family could face retaliation for coming forward.)

Several days later, after hiring a lawyer, Carl spoke with Martin again. He told her, in no uncertain terms, "I've instructed both of my boys that they are not to answer any more questions from the administration or the police at school in regards to this matter without parental or legal representation."

The statement caught the assistant principal off guard.

"She started stuttering and stammering a little bit about how she wasn't a part of the police and that they didn't need to speak to attorneys," Carl told me. "That that's not their job, and this or that or the other thing."

Carl was wise to ignore this assertion. The assistant principal isn't a cop, but the school—a public institution in the Midwest—did indeed employ a school resource officer: a law enforcement agent who works in the school but retains the powers of a typical cop. And in fact, Officer Jordan had warned Carl that his son might have committed felony distribution of child pornography. (Because of Carl's concerns about retaliation, I did not speak with anyone at the school. But Carl shared documentation with me in order to confirm his story, including emails between him and his lawyer on the days in question.)

"How can you call these kids in and get them to implicate themselves and each other?" Carl told me. "We felt like basically the officer and the assistant principal are using their positions of power over the kids."

On the day Carl and his wife first learned their eighth-grade son Tommy had been questioned by the school's administration, they sat down with their son and asked him whether it was true that he had an inappropriate picture of a female classmate on his phone. Tommy denied having the image, and let them look at his Snapchat folder to prove it wasn't there.

The next day, Tommy came home from school distraught. Eventually, he admitted to his parents that he had been dishonest with them: He did have the picture, and several others like it, but had panicked and wiped his phone as word began to spread at school that some boys were circulating naughty pictures of girls. The matter had reached the school's attention after a parent of one of Tommy's friends had discovered a picture of the girl on his friend's phone and reported it to the administration.

Tommy got the picture from a boy who attends a different middle school; this kid, according to Carl, was sent the picture either by the girl herself or by her vengeful friend. But Tommy's middle school identified Tommy as a distributor, since several boys had received the picture from him. Carl claims that Tommy hadn't actually sent it. Tommy's younger brother, a sixth grader, had unlocked Tommy's phone while he was out of the room, granting the friends access to the image so they could send it to themselves. (As an older brother whose younger brother would have taken any opportunity to trade my privacy for social approval while we were growing up, I sympathize with Tommy's situation.)

Tommy was no longer in possession of his phone: Officer Jordan had confiscated it, along with 30 others.

"One of my first questions when I found out that they'd taken his phone was, is that even legal?" Carl told me. "Are they even allowed to do that?"

It is legal for school officials to confiscate students' phones if they are disrupting class or violating school policy. But school officials often need to have kids or parents sign waivers in order to let police search the phones, and they can't compel students to unlock the devices.

Many people don't understand that school officials aren't necessarily doing what's best for a kid, and that they are likely to bring in law enforcement if they suspect a crime has been committed. And sharing sexually charged images of minors—even consensually, even if the people doing the sharing are themselves minors—is a felony.

Placed in such situations, students and parents often think the best thing to do is cooperate. Austin Yabandith, the 17-year-old whose ordeal I profiled at length for Reason, agreed to let an school resource officer access his phone because the officer said he would delete the inappropriate pictures and that would be that.

"They said that all they were going to do was delete the photos from the phone so I blindly signed a paper allowing them to access it," Austin told me.

But police officers don't have to tell the truth, and Austin was later charged with sexual exploitation, sexual assault, and possession of child pornography—all for having a consensually exchanged image of his 15-year-old girlfriend.

Tommy could have faced similar charges. The day after learning that the school had taken Tommy's phone, Carl went to the school to meet with Officer Jordan, who confirmed that the situation was serious.

"Basically what I got out of the conversation right away was he says, 'Your son has committed felony child pornography, and you can either sign this consent form so that I can get in his phone, or I'll get a warrant,'" Carl told me.

The officer said that he thought charges were unlikely in this case but would make no promises. Carl walked out of the meeting and hired an attorney.

In subsequent conversations, Ms. Martin, the assistant principal, maintained that Carl had escalated matters unnecessarily. Officer Jordan called Carl to ask him to sign the consent form to search the phone; Carl replied that he would only sign it if his attorney recommended such action.

Within a few days, Carl's attorney learned that no one would be facing charges and that the students whose phones were taken would be getting them back. The attorney also made a revelatory discovery—the prosecutor told him that the picture in question wasn't explicit enough to fall into the category of child pornography. The girl was topless, but she was covering her breasts with her hands.

That detail is reminiscent of a teen sexting case involving a 14-year-old girl from Iowa, who was accused by a juvenile court of sexually exploiting a minor via inappropriate photos. The minor was the girl herself, and the photos were, in her parents' words, "less 'racy' than photographs they see in fashion magazines and on television every day."

It has now been several months since Carl learned there would be no charges. Neither the police nor the school has taken any punitive action against Tommy, so the matter seems resolved. Carl eventually told his coworkers about the ordeal; an intern in his office said he knew a young man who had been arrested for sexting. The young man was Austin, and Carl got in touch with me after reading my article about the case.

Everything seems to have worked out fine for Tommy except for one thing: Officer Jordan kept his phone, for reasons that remain a mystery.

"We don't care about the phone," Carl told me, noting that he had already purchased his son a new phone for Christmas. "Part of me wonders if they feel like, as long as the phone is not out there, even if the picture is on the phone, it's not getting shared."

I told Carl that if I were him, I'd feel more comfortable about the phone if I could watch Officer Jordan destroy it with a power drill.

Reason is sponsoring a panel at South By Southwest 2018 on the wrongful criminalization of teen sexting. The event is on March 8 in Austin, Texas. It will feature the journalist Emily Yoffe, the sociologist Emily Horowitz, Austin's mother Amy Lawrence, and me.

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  1. He told her, in no uncertain terms, “I’ve instructed both of my boys that they are not to answer any more questions from the administration or the police at school in regards to this matter without parental or legal representation.”

    Normally I hear that parents will always portray their precious darlings to school officials as never having done anything wrong and refusing to discipline them at home, but this is wise of Carl. They’ll railroad any student without a second thought.

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  2. Also, is Ms. Martin and Miller both school officials or am I missing something with the pseudonyms?

    1. Yeah, just who the hell is this Miller person and how did xe get involved?

  3. Shouldn’t the headline read ‘Stupid law enriches lawyer’?

  4. I don’t know what everyone’s complaining about: the whole “school police in every school” thing is representative of where we are as a nation. We want things this way, because there’s nothing more valuable than a child or safety (or better yet, a combination of the two!) If we’d have had the courtesy and common sense to think like this back in my day, we could have properly labelled about 95% of my classmates as sex-offenders, thereby preventively warning the community in time to prepare for the depredations sure to follow!

    I remember high school in the 90s. I went to see the school guidance counselor to ask some questions about drinking alcohol. Their response was “wait right here” while they sent the vice-principal and the parking lot watchman to guard my truck until they could run a drug dog by it and search it for booze. Pissed me off something fierce, so I quit in 10th grade and went straight to college. This was a podunk school in Georgia. I can’t imagine how insane it’s become by now, especially in urban schools!

    1. Well, the worst was probably a kid having his car searched for being marked by a drug dog and being expelled for having his Boy Scout’s Swiss Army knife in his glovebox (no drugs).

      My friend held a lighter in front of a kid’s can of spray deodorant outside in our courtyard, and got expelled, and they tried to slap him with a bombmaking charge.

      Pretty much the same.

  5. Everything seems to have worked out fine for Tommy except for one thing: Officer Jordan kept his phone, for reasons that remain a mystery.

    I disagree. It isn’t much of a mystery at all.

    1. Well, if the phone is locked, that would make it a little tougher for Officer Jordan to acquire some more whacking material.

  6. Meanwhile the families are out thousands of dollars in legal costs.

    On the bright side, some more converts to the anti-Nanny-State side of the Force.

  7. OMG! Teenage boys wanting to get their hands on as much stuff about sex as they can. OMG!

    The Nanny and Police State are just out of control.

  8. I wonder what taking some home made touch explosive to school and having it go off in class would get you now?

    1. A bit more than creating your own smoke bomb out of a chunk of sulfur and lighting it on fire. The next year, I learned that sulfur on fire creates sulfur dioxide which becomes sulfuric acid when it comes into contact with the moisture in your lungs.

      But yeah, I would have gotten life in prison for that after the year 1990.

      1. Sulfur, potassium permanganate plus powdered carbon = gunpowder (and lots of fun).

        I blame my parents for encouraging an interest in sciencey stuff.

        1. That, and the Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk remembered enough high school chemistry of the same sort to make that mortar out of bamboo, pack it with his homemade gunpowder, and lob a rock at the alien wearing a godzilla suit.

  9. Parents should teach kids about their legal rights and not to talk to their school resource officer (or any other cops). They should make sure their kids phones and other devices are protected with open source, back door free encryption.

    1. I agree, and it’s really a shame that I have to.

  10. “She started stuttering and stammering a little bit about how she wasn’t a part of the police and that they didn’t need to speak to attorneys,” Carl told me. “That that’s not their job, and this or that or the other thing.”

    Every parent should realize that school administrators are both arrogant and ignorant and should be threatened with legal action in all disciplinary cases. Good on Carl for not putting up with this crap.

  11. The minor was the girl herself, and the photos were, in her parents’ words, “less ‘racy’ than photographs they see in fashion magazines and on television every day.”

    Wait, the *parents* saw those pictures? I trust *they* were busted as well.

    1. That’s the problem with the child porn laws. They are worded so anyone who views images or passes them over the internet are violating federal law.

      When I say anyone, I mean anyone.

      The federal government and the national Center for Missing and Exploited Children have huge stored collections of child porn.

      1. When I say anyone, I mean anyone

        Except of course, the school administration, the cops, the prosecutors, etc etc

      2. except for the cops who print them out to line their lockers with?

      3. There are explicit exceptions for police and lawyers when it’s evidence in a trial. Similarly, there’s an exception for if you report it to proper authorities within a short span of time.

        1. Is that perhaps the intended function of absolute and qualified immunity? I know it has legitimate uses, but it’s massively abused.

  12. The girl was topless, but she was covering her breasts with her hands.

    FFS. What a punchline.

    1. Honestly, Carl needs to be thanking his lucky stars that this was the case. God help him if it had been otherwise.

      That doesn’t make what the school and police did less egregious, but thank God it didn’t go where this normally does.

    2. Doesn’t that count as a ‘sex act’ these days?

    3. Even if she were naked, it wouldn’t be porn unless it were meant to appeal to prurient interest. Mere nudity doesn’t do it.

  13. This is so disturbing. The real criminals here are law enforcement and the legal system. They are destroying lives. They are as bad as child pornographers themselves. This society is getting more puritanical by the day. We literally are waging war on human sexuality on every front.

    1. Have you looked at tumblr lately?

  14. “We don’t care about the phone,” Carl told me, noting that he had already purchased his son a new phone for Christmas.”

    Son, I know you did something that put yourself in legal peril, created a tremendous expense for the family, and was an unbelievable stress to all of us… I realize you lied to me when I asked you about it, and then you lied again by saying someone else did it, not you, and that it would be irrational to restore to you cellphone privileges, but it’s Christmas, so I’m buying you a new one and letting you do whatever you want with it.

    Someone doesn’t learn lessons very well, do they?

    1. Boomer and GenX parents have a tough time saying “no”.

    2. Someone doesn’t learn lessons very well, do they?

      I’m sure the brother who was complicit in the distribution was severely frowned at and the parents of the handbra girl thought really hard about giving her a stern talking to as well.

  15. But Carl shared documentation with me in order to confirm his story, including emails between him and his lawyer on the days in question.)

    Argh! Red light! Danger, Will Robinson! No, no, no!!! No, no, no!!

    Immediately hiring an attorney to protect your rights/your kid’s rights: very smart.

    Waiving attorney-client privilege by sharing communications between you and your lawyer with third parties: retarded.

    1. since the problem has been resolved with I don’t think its an issue now. but then again, retribution is always on the horizon by baurocrats who have been put in their place.

      1. And who still have possession of your phone.

    2. Attorney-client privilege isn’t necessarily a horrible thing to lose. If everything’s on the up and up and you are actually innocent, even on the small case that a judge allows it, the cops will only get information that confirms the problem is nothing.

  16. Decommission by power drill? How boring. A hammer would be better. A .45 would be even better. Even the cop’s 9mm would be better, and the cop could vent some in the process, although who knows what else he’d hit.

    1. You better tape a picture of a dog on the phone so he will know to shoot.

      1. Eh, not if it’s an iPhone, they’re all dogs.

  17. Tommy got the picture from a boy who attends a different middle school; this kid, according to Carl, was sent the picture either by the girl herself or by her vengeful friend.

    So, at this point and throughout the rest of this story, the only notion that we have that this girl is underage is, at best, hearsay?

    I’ve kinda wondered how regular porn and porn starlets, esp. in the context of Title IX, #metoo, and sex trafficking, don’t get swept up in all this. Now, I’m kinda thinking a prosecutor realizes that he may end up busting teenage boys for having porn and looks for the ejector seat. Which, “Not pornographic enough.” seems like a pretty good one.

    1. My girlfriend is a juvenile country prosecutor in a large midwest city (county, actually). She gets cases like this weekly. Overwhelmingly she closes them without charges. In fact, I don’t think she’s ever actually filed charges for sexting pics. On a related note to the story, she and I regularly speak to our kids about keeping their mouths shut if it involves the po-po. Think about that. A senior level juvie prosecutor gives her kids the exact same advice as in this story. Kids, STFU and tell them you want to speak with an attorney.

      1. Hi ToddR. If your girlfriend would be interested in speaking with me privately about this, please let me know. I would love to get her perspective.

        robby.soave@reason.com

        1. Oooh……,you can’t spell suave without Soave.

  18. Parents are so clueless, it’s amazing. They always think their child is an angel. It’s the same people who want to give gov’t more power thinking it would never be used against them, only those OTHER people. What’s more amazing is many literally want to ruin a kids’ life over a bathroom selfie, where if laws like this were around when they were kids 30 years ago, half of them would probably be in jail.

    It’s like the law in Britain where they are going to try and block pr0n, and they actually think shit like that will work and is not just a giant fucking excuse to expand the state’s powers. There is no more capable mind on the planet then a 13 yo boy looking for pr0n.

    Speaking of which, I have a 14 yo cousin in high school… you telling me no one at that school is doing anything like that? Hell I bet most of them are. I’ve told him multiple times that it’ll illegal and ‘once something is on the internet, it’s there forever,’ and ‘just because the app says it’s deleted, doesn’t mean it’s actually deleted’, etc, but yeah I’m sure that will really stop a 14 year old from asking for nudes 😐

  19. I wonder if there is some way to set things up such that a school can not question your kid without you being notified, or (since presumably they won’t tell you when they want CPS to interrogate your kid) given access to counsel.

    A sort of pre-emptive, I’m asserting my child’s 5th and 6th amendment rights on their behalf

    Of course you should still drill it into their heads. “I assert my right to remain silent and my right to have my parents and counsel be present before I am questioned”

    1. You’ve obviously never read the Declaration…”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ? That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, to Forbid these rights upon the Moment of Birth, and not give them back until the Person reaches the age of 18 (or 21)…”

  20. those admin and cops NEED TO REMEMBER, kids DON’T GIVE UP THEIR 4TH AMENDMENT RIGHTS WHEN THEY STEP ONTO SCHOOL GROUNDS.

  21. They can keep the phone, I already bought my 13 YEAR OLD a new one for Christmas.

    Why does any 13 year old need a phone? To help him study?

    1. Because all the other kids got one. Seriously though, at Christmas I told my friend’s kid I got her a new tablet as a gift. When she opened the box it turned out to be an Etch-a-Sketch. The look on her face was priceless.

      As if kids need all this bullshit.

  22. This reminds me of an article that came out around somewhere just before the time the TSA was created. When police [or security] ask something along the lines of “do you mind if I ____” that is your clue that they either outright have no authority, or probable cause is really weak and won’t stand up. Expect stammering and/or repeated phrases when asserting you do mind, and no you do not consent to ____. You are being asked permission to keep THEM out of trouble/do their job for them – and you will pay the price.
    I’m so glad I grew up before cell phones. Trouble in school in my day was throwing rocks, or putting firecrackers in dog squeeze during recess. Principals are well meaning in most cases, but over my life I find educators are generally bad at two things: investing, and legal advice. Todays child with cell phone needs to have a remote wipe option installed [typically used to cope with theft]. Worst case scenario is your son/daughter gets hit with an obstruction charge, but that’s better than being on a sex offender registry for life. Teach them to quietly use it from a friends device before real questions get asked, and preferably before school admins bring them face to face with law enforcement.

    1. Why would getting rid of something that the kid is not allowed to have be illegal?

      1. https: // en .wikipedia .org/wiki/Spoliation_of_evidence

  23. If you have kids, be sure to show them this video as soon as they’re old enough to understand it:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-7o9xYp7eE

    -jcr

  24. I see what you mean… Jesse `s postlng is neat… on monday I bought a top of the range Jaguar E-type after I been earnin $7477 this-last/4 weeks and-even more than, 10-k last-munth . no-doubt about it, this really is the most comfortable job Ive had . I started this seven months/ago and right away was making more than $73 per-hr . go right here

    +_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+ http://www.homework5.com

    1. Making and selling child porn, right hikiyaka?

  25. I don’t know if I hate school employees or cops more… I got fucked with at school a lot through the years because I was smart, and not easily controllable. I grew out of it (more or less), but that really dun learnt me to not trust authority figures. Fortunately my dad was smart like this guy, and always on my side. They tried to expel me from the whole district over essentially making a sexually oriented joke, that wasn’t even that bad. My dad threatened to sue them, and literally yelled (very loudly over the phone) at the school principle… The cunt backed down. These people are insane power freaks.

    When I have kids I will tell them to keep their mouth shut and not say a single word before they talk to me about whatever the accusations are.

    1. It goes back a ways, too. I was in middle school in the early 1970’s, and we got a new Principle (right out of Ed School, natch) who had a bad case of “I am an education Professional, I know far more about raising and educating your children than you ignorant peasants possibly could”. Now, maybe she could have made that fly elsewhere, but this district was a bedroom community for the faculty to three (or was it four?) colleges. And you just don’t cop that attitude to a teaching Professor.

      She lasted one semester.

      1. Yup. Some of these people are out of control. I was pretty stoked when my dad took that bitches head off… All it typically takes is standing up to these petty tyrants to make them back down, yet so many parents are afraid.

  26. Pretty certain that the crowd that gets their “news” from network morning shows thinks that underage sex is such a huge problem that the school’s response was entirely appropriate.

  27. Many people don’t understand that school officials aren’t necessarily doing what’s best for a kid,

    Of course not. School officials do what is best for themselves.

  28. “I told Carl that if I were him, I’d feel more comfortable about the phone if I could watch Officer Jordan destroy it with a power drill.”

    I would have told Carl, that if I were him, I’d feel more comfortable about the phone if I could destroy Officer Jordan with a power drill.

  29. If I were Carl, I would feel a great deal more secure if they destroyed Officer “I am a totalitarian stooge” Jordan in front of me with a power drill.

  30. A drill might not do the job. The thing in the phone that must be destroyed is not the CPU, the screen, the accelerometer, nor any of the six radios; it’s the non-volatile storage. It would be expensive to read that without the gizmo it’s in, especially if it’s encrypted. But that’s it: just expensive. Build a fire in your backyard grill — when the charcoal is fully involved, add the gizmo. Keep it hot for an hour. Then you’ll be safe.

  31. I wonder why it’s SO important to these cops that they get to use whatever means necessary to acquire these images? Why is America perfectly fine with 13 year olds getting their lives ruined by pervert authoritarians? Our fetish for authority means those in power (judges, cops, politicians) are perfectly moral and just in whatever they do.

  32. The police haven’t had any luck catching commercial child porn photographers so they are concentrating on kids doing something that should be delt with by their parents. Also nude images that don’t display explicit sexual activity are not child porn. So says the US Supreme Court. See: Ashcroft v Free Speech Coalition.

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