RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — More than 100 central Virginia teenagers have been implicated in a six-county “sexting” investigation, authorities said Tuesday.
But Maj. Donald A. Lowe, chief deputy for the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office, said authorities are using the case more for teaching parents and teens about sexting than for law enforcement. Only three or four people might be charged as a result of an investigation that uncovered more than 1,000 photos or videos of nude or semi-nude teens on cellphones and social media, he said.
“We said from the beginning that we’re not going to label everyone who participated in this a sex offender,” Lowe said. “It would be counterproductive to do that. There’s no reason to destroy people’s lives and careers over this.”
Instead, Lowe said, authorities are promoting a dialogue with teens about the potential consequences of sexting and with parents about monitoring their children’s cellphone and Internet use.
“I’m glad people are talking about it,” he said. “That’s what needs to be done.”
Louisa County Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Pettit said training sessions held earlier this year at the high school by a prosecutor and a state senator covered sexting dangers. She said school officials are now considering offering “age-appropriate” training in middle school, as well as workshops for parents.
Lowe said none of the sexting occurred at school. The problem surfaced when a parent reported suspicious activity on her child’s Instagram account, and the investigation quickly spread to include teens in Fluvanna, Orange, Goochland, Albemarle and Hanover counties.
About three dozen cellphones have been turned over for forensic examination. Lowe said it takes the county’s lone forensic analyst about 10 hours to examine each phone. In most cases, the analyst will be the only one who sees the images. He will provide investigators a written description, preserving only images that might be needed for evidence if charges are filed.
Lowe said most of the photos are of scantily clad or nude girls 14 to 17 years old, and investigators “haven’t found anything that wasn’t consensual.” Criminal charges could be filed if authorities do discover a lack of consent or if a photo or video is exceptionally graphic, he said.
The Virginia investigation comes a little more than a month after officials in North Carolina reported that teenagers in nine counties posted nude photos using about three dozen Instagram accounts. Bedford County Sheriff’s Lt. Michael Harmony, who works with the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said some sexting investigations have been broader than Louisa’s and have even crossed state lines.
Lowe credited Instagram officials with helping shut down the accounts containing the nude photos. He also said that in 27 years on the job, he has never experienced the high degree of cooperation he has received from parents and teenagers in this investigation.
Pettit said she appreciates the “wise approach” the sheriff’s office has taken.
“The best that can happen is it is a lesson well learned that can prevent something more disastrous,” she said.
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