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 email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.