By Mike Brunker Projects Team editor
msnbc.com
updated 1/15/2009 8:03:18 PM ET 2009-01-16T01:03:18

In an unusual legal case arising from the increasingly popular practice known as “sexting,” six Pennsylvania high school students are facing child pornography charges after three teenage girls allegedly took nude or semi-nude photos of themselves and shared them with male classmates via their cell phones.

The female students at Greensburg Salem High School in Greensburg, Pa., all 14- or 15-years-old, face charges of manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography while the boys, who are 16 and 17, face charges of possession, according to WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh, which published the story on its Web site on Tuesday.

Police told the station that the photos were discovered in October, after school officials seized a cell phone from a male student who was using it in violation of school rules and found a nude photo of a classmate on it. Police were called in and their investigation led them to other phones containing more photos, it said.

Police Capt. George Seranko was quoted as saying that the first photograph was “a self portrait taken of a juvenile female taking pictures of her body, nude."

The school district issued a statement Tuesday saying that the investigation turned up “no evidence of inappropriate activity on school grounds … other than the violation of the electronic devices policy.” The statement also said that school officials didn’t learn of the charges against the students until Monday.

In the WPXI story, which included contributions from the Associated Press, Saranko indicated that authorities decided to file the child pornography charges to send a strong message to other minors who might consider sending such photos to friends.

"It's very dangerous," he said. "Once it's on a cell phone, that cell phone can be put on the Internet where everyone in the world can get access to that juvenile picture. You don't realize what you are doing until it's already done." (Seranko could not be reached for comment on Thursday, and a woman who answered the phone at the Greensburg Police Department said, “Our department is not doing any more interviews on the case.”)

But Patrick Artur, a Philadelphia defense attorney who by his reckoning has handled at least 80 child pornography cases, said the prosecution of minors for photos they took themselves runs counter to the purpose of both state and federal child pornography laws: Preventing the sexual abuse of children by “dirty old men in raincoats.”

“It’s clearly overkill,” he said. “… The letter of the law seems to have been violated, but this is not the type of defendant that the legislature envisioned” in passing the statute.

Artur said that because there is no mandatory minimum sentence under Pennsylvania’s child pornography law, unlike the federal statute, the students would not necessarily be incarcerated if they are found guilty. But he noted that convictions would have "serious, serious implications," including forcing them having to register as sexual offenders for at least 10 years.

While Artur said the prosecution of a juvenile for allegedly creating and distributing child porn was new to him, a quick review of federal and state statistics showed there have been a handful of similar cases, and several convictions.

While few minors have found themselves in court for e-mailing or posting sexy photos of themselves, there is little doubt that ubiquitous cell phones and easy access to computers have tempted many to push the erotic envelope.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported last month that a survey of 1,280 teens and young adults found that 20 percent of the teens said they had sent or posted nude or semi nude photos or videos of themselves. That number was slightly higher for teenage girls — 22 percent — vs. boys — 18 percent.

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