An anonymous Web page filled with nude photos is highlighting the dangers of teenage “sexting” and may ultimately lead to criminal charges.
Students at Weston’s Cypress Bay High School believe one or more of their classmates to be responsible for the lurid website, which features more than a dozen sexually explicit photos of teenage girls. The site identifies them as Cypress Bay students — and in some cases, lists their names.
“That’s playing with people’s lives,” said Cypress Bay senior Matthew Gio, 17.
The Broward’s Sheriff’s Office is investigating the website as possible child pornography. It was taken offline late Monday.
The Internet photos went viral, with the link shared rapidly via Twitter. Many of Cypress Bay’s roughly 4,300 students pulled up the images on their smartphones — while still in the building.
It all amounted to a very public humiliation for this group of girls, who are primarily freshmen.
One of the photographed girls was spotted openly weeping at school; another abruptly walked out of class after an onslaught of stares and whispers.
“Oh gosh, it’s so horrible,” said Cherie Benjoseph, co-founder of the KidSafe Foundation, a South Florida-based nonprofit that works to protect children from exploitation and abuse.
Benjoseph said parents and schools can do a better job of teaching children and teens how to protect themselves online. For example, the importance of self-respect and personal boundaries could be incorporated into schools’ sex education classes, and parents can make it a point to scroll through their child’s smartphone.
The Broward School District referred all calls about the incident to BSO.
To be sure, the 21st-century phenomenon of “sexting,” sending explicit photos via text, isn’t limited to teens. Celebrities such as actress Vanessa Hudgens have watched in horror as leaked naked photos go viral on the Internet. Hudgens recently called her own photo scandal “by far the worst moment of my career.”
There’s always the chance that such pictures will leak out. In the case of minors, there’s the added complications of child pornography laws, and the fact that teenage brains are wired to be more reckless than adults.
At Cypress Bay, the photo fallout may linger for years. Benjoseph worries the affected teens “will want to hurt themselves. They will feel that this is not something that they can tolerate and live with … unless they have incredibly strong support. It’s very sad. It’s heartbreaking.”
On Twitter, where news of the photos traveled fast and furiously, comments ranged from sympathetic (“Wow. Feel bad for the girls,” one person wrote) to the you-brought-it-on-yourself variety.
“Exactly why I always say girls shouldn’t send nudes,” tweeted Kiki Estévez. “Once it’s SENT, they can do WHATEVER they want with it.”
Some Twitter users in fact forwarded the photos — apparently unaware that doing so could make them a target for criminal prosecution.
Janet Johnson, a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney, said adults who tweeted the photos or even forwarded the website link could wind up facing longer jail time than the teens who actually posted the pictures online. A key reason: Those teenagers, while still potentially facing the charge of disseminating child porn, would likely be tried in a more lenient juvenile court proceeding.
For adults convicted of spreading the images, a couple of years of prison time is a real possibility, Johnson said, even for first-time offenders. That conviction would also carry the label of being a registered sex offender.
“Once those images are on their phone or iPad or computer, even if they delete them, they’re in possession,” said Johnson, who handles numerous child porn cases. “They can’t wipe that off of their hard drive.”
Some Cypress Bay students were surprised that the photos remained online Friday.
BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright said the agency was still working to identify the girls, and won’t request the website operator remove the page until it has confirmed that the girls are minors.
“It’s not that simple,” Coleman-Wright said. “You have to prove that a crime has been committed, that there is in fact illegal activity, before you can demand that a site be taken down.”
Cypress Bay students said at least some of the photos match the student names listed next to them, while others may not.
When it comes to academics, Cypress Bay has a stellar reputation, and the school enjoyed the rare honor of a commencement speech delivered by Vice President Joe Biden last year. But in only a decade or so of existence, Cypress Bay has had multiple sex scandals.
In 2009, police discovered a 17-year-old student using his smartphone to snap photos of girls while they were using the school restroom. Last year, police investigated a social studies teacher and wrestling coach who was accused of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student.
The student confirmed the romantic relationship, but said it was consensual, and she was 18 when it happened. Police did not file any criminal charges in that case.