Teens involved in ‘sexting’ ring could face felony charges

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published October 14, 2014

ROCHESTER — Dozens of students in the Rochester area could face felony charges after an alarming number of teenage girls allegedly took nude or semi-nude photos of themselves and shared them with male classmates via their cellphones.

Capt. Michael Johnson, of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, said police have identified 30 students from Rochester Adams High School and one from Van Hoosen Middle School, all under 16 years old, who are believed to have been involved in the sexting ring, which police uncovered a couple of weeks ago.

“A couple of girls overheard several boys taking about trading photographs of nude fellow female students, and a girl that was a friend of one of the students encouraged her to notify the school official of the incident, and we started investigating,” he said.

From there, Johnson said, the case quickly ballooned to include 24 female students and seven male students, who allegedly used their phones to share inappropriate photos of themselves or their friends — which is considered a felony in Michigan.

“It’s amazing how quickly this mushroomed from one complaint that involved two people to 31,” Johnson said.

Those who took the explicit photos and sent them, as well as those who received the photos and forwarded them, all committed a crime under Michigan law.

“All 31 could potentially be charged,” Johnson said. “It’s a felony to distribute sexually explicit material. If you use a cellphone or a computer, that’s where it becomes more of a crime, and I think it is normally a seven-year felony.”

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office is currently investigating the incident, Johnson said.

In the meantime, Johnson encouraged parents to use this incident as a teaching moment and take the time to sit down with their kids to explain to them that this is not appropriate behavior.

“As parents, we probably all think that it is something we shouldn’t have to explain to our children, but it really is. Obviously, when you find 31 students doing this, you have to take a step back. This shows you have to pay attention to what is on your kids’ phones and what they are doing with their computer ... because anytime you use any type of computer or device, any click you make is out there, and once it gets on the Internet or shared by people, it becomes a huge problem.”

Defense attorney Shannon Smith, whose Bloomfield Hills law office specializes in cases involving sex crimes, is representing one of the kids who is accused of sending an explicit photo in the Rochester sexting ring.

Sexting has become a routine practice for many teenagers today, according to Smith.

“Sexting has become a really big trend,” she said. “It’s happening a lot. Kids are charged with this frequently.”

But what they don’t realize, she said, is that participating in this trend also comes with some serious repercussions. In Michigan, the act of creating, soliciting, possessing or distributing sexually explicit photos of a minor under 18 is a felony. The potential penalty is significant incarceration — of anywhere between four and 20 years in prison — plus fines and possible registration on the sex offender registry.

“Anyone taking the photographs, distributing them, receiving them or forwarding them on can all be accused of crimes under Michigan statutes, which were obviously designed to protect children from predators — but the teenagers who are being charged or accused of this would be prosecuted under the same exact statute. The law is not any different for a teenager doing this versus a 70-year-old creepy, dirty man,” she said.

Catching their teen sexting is a good indicator parents should have a discussion about relationships and safe sex. After that, Smith said, parents should immediately consult an attorney.

“The consequences are serious, so it’s important for the kid to be advised about whether or not they should answer questions,” she said. “One of the things I don’t think parents realize is kids are treated just the same as an adult being accused of a crime … so it’s just as important for a kid to get a lawyer, too, because the consequences are very serious. ”

The American Academy of Pediatrics says parents can help educate their teens about sex before issues arise by talking to them when they first ask about sex, giving their teens a chance to talk and ask questions. The AAP recommends discussing avoiding peer pressure, using contraception, preventing sexually transmitted infections and knowing when a relationship is unhealthy or unsafe. Because talking about sex is difficult, when necessary, the AAP said parents can also encourage their teens to seek advice from their pediatrician.

A representative from the school district could not be reached at press time.