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Up to 12 Penn-Trafford students might be charged in 'sexting' case

| Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Penn Township police are preparing to file criminal charges against several Penn-Trafford High School students accused of distributing fully or partially nude photos.

Police anticipate between six and 12 students will be charged through an investigation after the confiscation of cellphones at the school this month, Chief John Otto said Tuesday afternoon.

Students who willingly snapped photos of themselves and texted them to others will be charged with a summary offense. Those who received the images and shared them with others will be charged with a misdemeanor, he said.

From what police can tell, the sharing of revealing photos, known as “sexting,” is “fairly common” among students, the chief said. The disturbing part in this case, he said, is that students were treating the photos like trading cards.

“This is going to be one of those wake-up moments for students, whether they are involved or not involved,” Otto said.

District officials immediately disciplined three students earlier this month after a teacher became aware of the situation, Assistant Superintendent Scott Inglese said.

Every year, officials address with students the consequences of texts or Internet posts — including inappropriate photos — to drive home that those communications are “out there forever, and it can come back to haunt you,” Inglese said.

A couple of years ago, a deputy attorney general gave presentations to students at both local middle schools about Internet safety, he said.

“This is the first time we've had a widespread incident that's gotten pretty deep or extensive, but we've had others,” Inglese said.

The investigation of sexting cases has changed in the last few years as legislators have passed new laws concerning the practice.

A new misdemeanor offense — unlawful dissemination of an intimate image — criminalizes the sharing of a nude image of a current or former intimate partner with the intent to harass or annoy that person.

Legislators also created a charge of transmission of sexually explicit images by a minor. That's a summary offense for a minor who distributes a sexually explicit image of himself or herself.

That law, in particular, addressed concerns that the punishment for the consensual exchange of photos — possibly through a child-pornography charge — was too extreme, said Judy Petrush, an assistant Westmoreland County district attorney. The charge addresses risky behavior without subjecting the offender to registration as a sex offender under Megan's Law requirements, she said.

“A consequence that people who engage in this type of exchange don't consider is we have a real challenge on our hands keeping these images away from sex offenders as it is, let alone teens or preteens putting them out there on their own,” said Petrush, who handles some sexting cases in juvenile court.

Local police in other communities also have been dealing with sexting or posting of nude images.

In 2013, Murrysville police investigated three cases involving youths taking or sending pictures, Chief Tom Seefeld said. None of those led to charges, but one student received counseling after being accused of taking, but not sending, photos.

Another case, involving an encounter online last year, remains under investigation, Seefeld said.

In 2013, North Huntingdon police and the FBI investigated a since-closed pornographic website that featured photos of Norwin High School students.

Staff Writer Patrick Varine contributed to this story. Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2363 or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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