Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Sexting — sending risque phone photos — landing teens in trouble

TAMPA — The teens outside Hillsborough High School erupted into giggles as they talked about the nude photograph of a male student that flew around campus by cell phone.

"I still can't look at him seriously when I see him in the halls," says Olivia Bozel, 15, who deleted it from her phone.

Sending sexy self-portraits is high-tech flirting, says John Steele, a Hillsborough freshman, who sent a snapshot showing off his pecs and abs to about 20 girls.

"If you can't see your girl in real life, it's another way to see her," he said.

Racy images on cell phones are flitting around school campuses, but "sexting," as it often called, can be more than embarrassing.

It has caught the attention of prosecutors across the country who are charging students as young as middle schoolers with child pornography and other felonies.

Last month three Pennsylvania girls, ages 14 and 15, were charged after they sent nude self-portraits to their boyfriends, ages 16 and 17. The boys were charged, too. In Indiana, a middle school boy faces felony obscenity charges for sending a naked photo of himself to a girl.

And this past week, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office got its first sexting case involving three teens.

Joe Walker, assistant director of the juvenile division, declined to give details, saying investigators are still reviewing the case.

"We'll consider the child's background and what's in their best interest," Walker said. "We have to look at the big picture."

Prosecutors are grappling with how aggressively to pursue such cases — and in the process possibly label a teen a sex offender.

"Kids need to be careful before they hit send," said Rita Peters, chief prosecutor for the Hillsborough state attorney's sex crimes division, although she hasn't prosecuted a minor for sexting yet.

Unwelcome images also can be harassment. That's true even for adults, and it can be illegal, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

"It's like rape. If it's a consensual exchange, fine," she said. "But if it's obscene and you're offended by it, it's absolutely possible to press charges."

About one in five teens say they've electronically sent a nude or seminude picture of themselves, according to a recent survey released by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Most said they sent suggestive messages as a "sexy present" or a joke.

Hillsborough High junior Shard Octavius said he got a revealing photo message from a girl and knew instantly how to interpret it: "It's like, 'Are you interested?' "

He didn't realize receiving the image could have gotten him trouble, too.

"You serious? But I didn't send it," said Shard.

Public school districts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando allow students to carry cell phones, but they must be turned off during school hours and concealed.

Students who violate the policy risk having their cell phones confiscated — and administrators discovering questionable pictures.

Lewis Brinson, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for administration, worries teens don't understand the consequences of sexting.

"Once you take a picture like that and allow someone to have it, you give up your privacy," he said. "When you send something like, there's no telling where its going to end up."

Sometimes it's impossible to stop kids from using cell phones during school hours, said Hills­borough High principal William Orr. He caught an explicit exchange a few years ago.

A student had taken a nude picture and sent it to another student who passed it around, he said. He turned the phone over to the parents to handle.

John Steele, the Hillsborough High student, says sending the picture of his exposed chest was just risque fun.

But two years ago he was on the receiving end. Holly Steele was called to pick up her son from middle school after a classmate, a girl, sent him sexually provocative photos and a video.

John was kicked out of his magnet school, and a police officer said he could have been arrested.

His mother wondered if the girl could have been charged with producing pornography.

Either move would have been inappropriate, said Steele, a psychologist who treats sex offenders.

Kids are not naturally good with privacy, she said, and this is an instance where the law is evolving slower than culture.

She thinks sexting is not a matter for the courts unless it's done with malicious intent, such as kids taking photos without permission or forwarding them spitefully.

"Maybe it requires a deferral of charges in lieu of treatment," Steele said.

John insists he has learned his lesson. "Take it from me," he said. "It's a reason not to have pictures on your phone."

He recently deleted a collection of nude photos from his phone.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.

Sexting — sending risque phone photos — landing teens in trouble 02/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 12:56pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Car bomb kills 13, injures 24 in Baghdad; Islamic State claims responsibility


    BAGHDAD — A car bomb exploded outside a popular ice cream shop in central Baghdad just after midnight today, killing 13 people and wounding 24, hospital and police officials said.

  2. Leaping shark floors angler in Australia


    In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's protagonist battles for three days to pull in his prized catch. For Terry Selwood, it came a little more suddenly.

    A 9-foot shark lies on the deck of a fishing boat at Evans Head, Australia on Sunday. Fisherman Terry Selwood said he was left with a badly bruised and bleeding right arm where the shark struck him with a fin as it landed on him on the deck. [Lance Fountain via AP]
  3. Rays rally twice to beat Rangers (w/video)

    The Heater

    ARLINGTON, Texas — Starting Erasmo Ramirez on Monday after he closed out Sunday's marathon win turned out, despite the Rays' best intentions and rigid insistence, to be a bad idea as he gave up four runs without getting through three innings.

    Erasmo Ramirez, starting a day after closing a 15-inning marathon, struggles against the Rangers and comes out after throwing 43 pitches in 21/3 innings.
  4. Britain investigating missed signals over Manchester bomber


    LONDON — Britain's domestic intelligence agency, MI5, is investigating its response to warnings from the public about the threat posed by Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed 22 people and wounded dozens more in an attack at a crowded Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, last week.

    People gather Monday at St. Ann’s Square in Manchester, England, to view tributes to victims of the suicide bombing that killed 22 on May 22 as a concert by Ariana Grande was concluding.
  5. Trump condemns killing of pair who tried to stop racist rant


    The mayor of Portland, Ore., on Monday urged U.S. officials and organizers to cancel a "Trump Free Speech Rally" and other similar events, saying they are inappropriate and could be dangerous after two men were stabbed to death on a train as they tried to help a pair of young women targeted by an anti-Muslim tirade.

    Coco Douglas, 8, leaves a handmade sign and rocks she painted at a memorial in Portland, Ore., on Saturday for two bystanders who were stabbed to death Friday while trying to stop a man who was yelling anti-Muslim slurs and acting aggressively toward two young women. From left are Coco's brother, Desmond Douglas; her father, Christopher Douglas; and her stepmother, Angel Sauls. [Associated Press]