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Intimate photos of students show up on new app, causing uproar at Osceola High

The smartphone app called #Life lets kids tag and sort schools, teachers’ names and more for photo sharing.
The smartphone app called #Life lets kids tag and sort schools, teachers’ names and more for photo sharing.
Published Jan. 16, 2015|Updated Feb. 16, 2021

SEMINOLE — A new smartphone application threw one of Pinellas County’s strictest high schools into an uproar this week when some students used it to anonymously post nude photos of their classmates.

Administrators at Osceola Fundamental High School learned of the app, called #Life ("hashtag life"), and its misuse on Tuesday, a school district spokeswoman said.

A scan of the app showed it was also being used at dozens of public and private schools around the Tampa Bay area and Florida, though no other schools reported problems with it.

Some hashtags in the app indexed a school's name or the name of a city, and others referenced "hotties," "boobs" and "teachers."

Later in the day, as news of the uproar at Osceola spread, the founders of #Life said they had temporarily removed the app from the iTunes store.

School administrators "were made aware that some of the pictures were insulting or upsetting or possibly even illegal that should not be available online," school spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said.

By that point, students said, word of the photos was churning through the high school rumor mill. Some people reported girls leaving the cafeteria in tears and expressing horror that images of them had been made public. School leaders held an emergency faculty meeting Wednesday.

It was an uncomfortable moment for Osceola, which espouses no-nonsense values and strong parental involvement, "like schools used to be."

A founder of #Life, Griffin Anderson, described the app as an anonymous photo-sharing tool that lets students check out what their peers were doing. He expressed disappointment with the way Osceola students were using #Life and said the company quickly removed explicit content.

Officials at Osceola immediately took steps to prevent further misuse. They reminded students of a policy prohibiting phone access during the school day, encouraged them to delete the app, redoubled efforts to educate them about social media and Internet safety, and notified school resource officers from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. They also offered counseling, Parra said.

A resource officer was calling students into his office in connection with the investigation, but Sgt. Elizabeth Brady, a sheriff's spokeswoman, said no one had been arrested as of Thursday afternoon.

Spokesmen in the Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando school districts reported no issues with the app.

#Life is particularly tricky for school officials because it allows students to access the app without it being traced back to them. Teachers couldn't confiscate every cellphone in the building, and Parra said students were told they bore partial responsibility for stopping a problem that was harming their peers.

By Thursday, speculation was aflame at Osceola and on Twitter, where several students expressed disgust with those uploading photos.

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Maddie Coppola, a 17-year-old junior, said there were "a ton" of nude pictures showing as many as 20 to 30 girls and some boys. "Girls are feeling that their lives are over now," she said.

The photos initially had been saved on students' phones, then shared by boys who got ahold of them, and also by boys and girls formerly in relationships, Coppola said.

"Girls have been leaving lunch crying," said Ryan Kosior, an 18-year-old senior.

Several students said that although sharing the nude photos on #Life was wrong, the girls who took the photos also were to blame.

"That's a bad thing to do and stuff, but this is the guy's fault and the girl's fault," Kosior said. "The girls know who they're sending it to."

Other teens said teachers had begun to more strictly enforce the school's rule against accessing phones. "That's all they're talking about," said Jamiia Spradley, 16, a junior.

Rumors also ricocheted about the app's founder, who some students believed had fled the area. But Anderson said in a phone interview that he lives in "greater Tampa Bay," though he declined to say exactly where or provide his age. He said he worked on #Life with a couple of friends, some of whom had attended the University of South Florida.

They launched #Life about six months ago, Anderson said, inspired by the success of other apps such as Yik Yak and Whisper, which allow users to anonymously share gossip or chatty tidbits through text. Both are popular at high schools and colleges across the country.

"What we want is, when a student downloads the app, to have a fun experience, to check out all kinds of events or activities going around their school, to get some insight into the community and see what's going on," Anderson said.

#Life explicitly prohibits the sharing of pornographic images, according to the terms of service previously listed on the app.

"We're absolutely disappointed," Anderson said. "We have a zero tolerance policy for any type of bullying or any type of pornographic material."

All explicit pictures at Osceola were removed within five to 10 minutes of posting, Anderson said, "but by then the damage had been done."

The app featured a three-tiered system for keeping content appropriate, he said.

“Unfortunately, Osceola ended up being a really bad example of what we wanted to achieve.”

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