Police are investigating as many as a dozen teenagers at two separate schools in Falls Church, Virginia, as part of an ever-widening sexting inquiry.
Police seized five cell phones and have recovered multiple "explicit images" that students shared with each other on Snapchat and via text messages, according to The Washington Post.
The investigation began when Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School's school resource officer—the cop charged with keeping the peace on campus—learned that students had been filming fights and possibly circulating nude photos. One cell photo led him to another, and another, and another:
The second male student said the latter photo was of a ninth-grader at George Mason High School in Falls Church and told police he received it from a third male student at Henderson, according to the search warrant.
That led police to a third male student, who told investigators that the ninth-grader exposed her breasts during a live Instagram session and he took an image of it, the warrant says. The third male student admitted to sending that image to the second male student and another male student at Henderson.
Obviously, someone needs to talk to these kids about respecting other people's privacy, and explain to them that pictures shared on Snapchat don't magically disappear. To the extent that the illicit activity undermines social cohesion in school, or contributes to bullying, administrators can discipline the kids involved—though they should keep in mind that the point of punishment is to teach the kids to lead more responsible lives, not to ruin said lives.
Unfortunately, police involvement could lead to some very bad outcomes:
Under Virginia law, teens who sext can be prosecuted using the state's child porn charge, a felony that carries a minimum five-year sentence. In practice, however, such cases more often end with a plea to a lesser charge.
Even lesser charges can have life-altering consequences for young people, making it harder for them to get into college, find jobs, or even form healthy relationships with other teens. We shouldn't turn kids into pariahs for engaging in incredibly common, age-appropriate—if undesirable—behavior.
Virginia police have a history of pursuing teen sexting cases with misguided zealotry. In 2014, police in northern Virginia sought—and obtained—a warrant to give a teenage boy an erection so that they could photograph it and compare it with the evidence they had already gathered. One of the officers involved later committed suicide after he was accused of sexually abusing minors.
It's well worth asking, then, whether the police should really be in the business of collecting sexually explicit images of teenagers as part of an effort to hold them criminally accountable. It doesn't seem like the best use of the cops' time, and it's definitely not what's best for the teens.