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'Sexting' Photos Subject of CMS, Police Probe In Northern Mecklenburg

Lisa Worf

Sexting is nothing new for teenagers. Nor is having those pictures end up on the devices of those they weren’t meant for. That’s what recently happened to several girls in north Mecklenburg County. But their stories are a bit different. Their photos were uploaded to a site that was distributed to students at several schools. It’s a type of sexting case that has become more common across the country. 

The photos came to the attention of police after a couple of girls at Hough High school told their principal about them. There were about 75 pictures, all which police say were “inappropriate” photos girls had taken of themselves and sent to boys they trusted. In some of the photos girls were in their underwear. In others, they were naked.  The photos ended up on the file-sharing site Dropbox. Access to that site got passed around to students at several middle and high schools in northern Mecklenburg County. 

“Our primary goal was to identify the young ladies depicted in these pictures and notify their parents and to immediately get the site shut down,” says CMS Police Detective Kenny Lynch. 

The girls were as young as fourteen years old. Dropbox has taken the account down, but detective Lynch said it had been open since late December.

“This is what I call a typical case of inappropriate picture taking and sending those out,” says Lynch. 

Lynch says he’s used to dealing with teenagers taking and sharing intimate photos of themselves and others, but he says this case is different because of the lengths one student went to accumulate these photos and share them. 

Across the country law enforcement agencies deal with a few thousand cases a year, says David Finkelhor. He directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center.  He says sexting is one way teenagers experiment with intimacy. 

“It’s hard to learn who you can trust and what you can trust them with and the desire to learn about how to be intimate and gain the favor of people of the opposite sex is a very strong motive,” says Finkelhor. 

He co-authored a study in the journal Pediatrics that analyzed cases from 2008 and 2009. It found about a fifth of the cases involved teenagers distributing photos of others without their permission, often as a way to show off to friends.

Finkelhor says most agencies have taken a measured approach in prosecuting sexting cases. 

“Most of the law enforcement have recognized that these are juveniles and probably unaware of the serious crimes they’re violating, so they haven’t been prosecuted with the full extent of the law that’s available,” says Finkelhor. 

In North Carolina, like many states, sexting involving minors falls under child pornography laws that make creating, possessing, and distributing images of children under eighteen a felony. So, technically, even a girl taking a naked photo of herself could be charged with a crime.    

Usually CMS deals with sexting cases through school disciplinary actions like suspensions and lots of education.  But this case has made Lynch think something else should be in order.

“Because of the Dropbox site and the dissemination of those pictures, I think we’ll need to look at some possible charges of the creator of that site,” says Lynch. 

Police have a suspect.  Lynch wouldn’t give the student’s age or school he attends.  He noted it’s not necessarily a CMS school.  He says CMS, Huntersville, and Cornelius police are working with the District Attorney’s Office to figure out what charges are appropriate. 

They’re also working with Dropbox to see if they can identify all the students who viewed the pictures.  Lynch says he’s not necessarily interested in prosecuting them, but he does want them to learn from this.