CANON CITY, COLO. >> When school officials in the rural Colorado community of Canon City learned local high-schoolers were collecting naked photos of one another, they had no choice but to notify the police and hand over hundreds of intimate images to law enforcement.
That's because, they say, Colorado law classifies any explicit photos of minors as child pornography and requires educators to notify police the moment they learn of it. And now that police and prosecutors are trying to determine if any crime was committed, school officials say they can't even offer counseling to students, because they would have to report those otherwise confidential conversations.
New type of problem
This kind of bind is increasingly common across the country as laws from the pre-smartphone era collide with the digitally saturated reality of today's high schools.
Last year in Fayetteville, North Carolina, two dating teens who exchanged nude selfies at the age of 16 were charged as were adults with a felony — sexual exploitation of a minor. Those charges were later reduced to misdemeanors following a public uproar.
This week, two 14-year-old boys on New York's Long Island were charged after one of them was accused of recording the other having sex with a girl. That video got as many as 20 students suspended from another school — although not criminally charged — for either watching it or sending it to friends. Police escorted one sophomore off campus when he protested being suspended merely for receiving the video.
And last week, 16 students in Greenbrier, Tennessee, were charged with sexual exploitation of a minor after exchanging explicit photos on their cellphones.
Canon City School superintendent George Welsh said laws intended to protect youth from sexual predators have put the school in a Catch-22.
"You see the mess we're in, you know? So we have to watch out for the mental health needs of our children, yet we've kind of got a structure whereby they would be nuts to come and talk to us about it," Welsh said.
The southern Colorado community is home to several state and federal prisons, and many of the students at the high school are sons and daughters of prison guards. Last week, the high school forfeited the final game of the football season, saying too many on the team had violated ethical standards for athletes. The news sent shockwaves through the city of 16,000 and drew national attention to the investigation.
Students hid at least some of the photos using an app that looks like a calculator, and punched a series of numbers to reveal them. Prosecutors say their intent is not to file criminal charges against all the students, but rather to look for any adults or coercion was involved.
Some students think the school overreacted, since laws also allow older teens to have sex with each other in some circumstances, even if they are forbidden from sending or receiving sexually explicit photos.
Canon City High School student Elizabeth Ellis, 18, said she believes teens will continue to share explicit images via cellphone no matter what the school does.
"We're not the only high school that does it and we're not going to be the only one that gets found out," she said.
In Denver's western suburbs, District Attorney Pete Weir's office has handled more than 100 sexting cases in the past two years, referred by schools, parents or others, usually after the images are shared beyond the intended recipient.
Even if teens send explicit images consensually, Weir's office will approach them and require self-esteem and relationship education in exchange for avoiding prosecution. Parents are also included in the first and last of the sessions and get advice on monitoring their children's phones.
Some teens, parents and legal experts say law enforcement has to see the larger picture, too. One study found that 28 percent of teens sext, and child advocates warn against harsh measures for those who are caught.
Jeff Temple, an associate professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston who did the study, sees sexting as a new form of flirting and said it mostly happens between teens who are in a relationship or want to be. This behavior is best addressed by parents talking to their children about healthy relationships and boundaries, he said.
Distributing photographs to others or coercing people to share explicit photos of themselves is more serious and could merit a tougher response, he said.
Potentially allowing the entire world to see your most intimate photos is a real danger, but not one that should be punished criminally, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
"Sexting is a pretty dumb thing to do, but so is having sex at 14 in your parents' basement," she said.