MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And now to a very different issue that's spreading among America's youth. If you are the parent of a teen or even a pre-teen, you may have heard about sexting. That's where young people take provocative or sexually explicit photos of themselves or others on their cell phone cameras and send them to other teens. Now, as a parent you might be worried about poor judgment or poor taste or your child's privacy being compromised but what about legal action? Around the country, prosecutors have filed criminal charges against a handful of teens who are sending provocative photos to each other.
But in at least one case, a prosecutor went after a school administrator who was trying to investigate a case of sexting. Ting-Yi Oei, an assistant principal at Freedom High School in South Riding, Virginia, was arrested last year on charges of possession of child pornography. The charges were thrown out by a judge earlier this month and now Mr. Oei is headed back to work. Now the case raises a number of questions about how prosecutors are applying laws related to child abuse to this issue and whether that's appropriate.
And I should mention here that we did reach out to the prosecutor in this case, who declined to talk to us but who has sent us a statement which we'll tell you about later. And we're also going to talk with our parenting roundtable about this. But first, we're going to focus this conversation on the challenge of a school official trying to keep up with new technology and the age old problem of teen hormones at the same time. We caught up with Ting-Yi Oei yesterday, on his first day back on the job as assistant principal at Freedom High School. And I asked him what if that was an emotional day for him.
Mr. TING-YI OEI (Assistant Principal, Freedom High School): Yes, it is. It's a kind of an awkward event in some ways. I haven't been back at the school since last August 20th. So, it's exciting and a little apprehensive.
MARTIN: You wrote an op-ed page in the Washington Post describing exactly what happened to you. And I think this piece was a revelation to a number of people because I think the only thing many people would have heard about your case through the initial reporting was, school administrator arrested on child pornography charges. So, if you would describe for people exactly how this thing started.
Mr. OEI: Well, it came to me via a teacher who had told me of a rumor in school that some students were exchanging pictures of themselves, naked pictures. Because of the concern we have just of children's safety and the possibility of harassment or whatever it was, I had never heard of sexting at this point, but I thought I would investigate and see what this was about.
MARTIN: And how did you figure out whom to speak with?
Mr. OEI: There're some clues. I don't want to go into too many details. But there were reasons to focus on some students who would likely have a picture like that. We weren't concerned so much, I wasn't anyway, about who might have it on their phone. We were concerned about alerting people to see what perhaps was going on and making sure no one was being put in danger.
MARTIN: So, you talked to one student and it turned out he did have a nude photo of a young woman on his cell phone, correct?
Mr. OEI: Well, yes, but it wasn't a nude photo. The picture showed a woman without the head in the picture, wearing underwear and arms crossed over her breasts. And that was the extent of the single picture that I saw. In the interviews that we did we couldn't determine who the person was in the picture and concluded at the time of the investigation that this wasn't a student at the school, at least not from the information that we could glean on that particular day.
MARTIN: Why did you want to know who was in the picture? What was the idea?
Mr. OEI: I think we really didn't know what we were getting into at that time. I think with the student who had the picture on his phone, he wasn't in trouble as such. We just thought that he would be someone who might be able to steer us in the direction of knowing something more about the picture. And then once we had that information, if indeed we could find out anything more, which we were not at that time, then take steps perhaps to warn the person in the picture that this was not something that they should be doing.
MARTIN: So, how then did the picture come to be in your possession? This picture was on the young man's cell phone. He is a 17-year-old student and then what happened?
Mr. OEI: I was conducting the investigation with the school safety and security specialist, and together we were talking with the student who had the picture on his phone. And then when we saw what it was, I took the picture immediately to the principal, and then we decided that it probably should be something that was kept on the - for the school's records. And so we were thinking of the best way to do this, and the student, in the interim, just volunteered it: I could send to your cell phone, meaning my cell phone.
And so he did that. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And then I was kind of thinking well, now I still have the same problem. How do I get the picture from my cell phone to the computer? And the student against volunteered that well, you can just email it to your school computer. So I did that, and that's the process by which it got on my phone.
MARTIN: And just to clarify, this was all in the presence of other school officials. This was all done with the knowledge of other school officials.
Mr. OEI: Yes.
MARTIN: They understood that you were trying to figure out what was going on, and that's when the drama ensued. Well, that's not exactly when the drama ensued, that this student was later called to your attention for pulling down another student's pants. And then when he was suspended, his mother became very angry, and that's when it became a matter of interest to law enforcement.
Mr. OEI: That's correct.
MARTIN: Now we're going to sort of condense a lot of what happened here, just to say that this then became a long, drawn-out nightmare for you. You were charged with several things. What were you charged with?
Mr. OEI: Initially, I was charged with failure to report suspected child abuse, and the basis of that charge was that whatever this incident was seen as by the sheriff's department and the commonwealth's attorney, it now constituted child abuse and I had an obligation as an assistant principal to report it. And, in fact, what we were able to show the commonwealth's attorney was that I had reported it to the principal, which is what the statute requires.
So after the arrest, that's the case we made immediately to the prosecutors, and they agreed to go ahead and nol pros the charge, meaning dismiss the charge.
MARTIN: But then you were charged with possession of child pornography. Do I have that right?
Mr. OEI: That is correct. On August 20th, I was hit again with a possession of child pornography charge based on that single picture that I had, that I had gotten as part of the school investigation.
MARTIN: You know, the Loudon County prosecutor, James Plowman, who's the commonwealth's attorney, told Wired magazine was that the issue was that they were trying to get you to resign, and they said that you were unwilling to be responsible for any kind of accountability. What do you think they thought you did wrong?
Mr. OEI: I think initially that, one, they had the law wrong. Secondly, I don't think they were ever aware, until after my attorney had gotten in touch with the commonwealth's attorney's assistant and said, you know, Mr. Oei did not do this in isolation. He was with other school officials, conducting this investigation.
MARTIN: But why do you think they think you needed to resign? What do they think you did, you failed in your responsibility as an educator in pursuing this? The mere fact that you viewed this image? I mean, did anyone ever tell you?
Mr. OEI: No. I have never spoken with the commonwealth's attorney directly, only through my attorney. I don't know what it was that motivated them, specifically. I think there may have been issues of conflict between the commonwealth's attorney's office and the school system about what they think the commonwealth's attorney's office should know about that goes on in the schools.
I think there are other issues, too, of perhaps the prosecutor thinking that this is indeed something that his name and reputation are tied to, and this is his way of going about - to showing it.
MARTIN: So what, then, should we draw from your experience? I mean, if you could do this over again, what would you have done differently?
Mr. OEI: Well, I think in hindsight, I wish I'd never had the picture on my cell phone, of course. But as my article pointed out, too, I was not familiar with the camera feature on my phone at all. This was the first time I'd ever received a picture on my cell phone.
So I think that's the issue, partly of the technology. I think the other thing, too, is we have to really look at, as we found with the other cases around sexting, are we really talking about child pornography in the way the law was intended? Or is this really a misapplication, a misuse or even abuse of the law? So that's, I think, a question for legislators to take up.
MARTIN: So what do you think, as an administrator who works with kids all the time, what do you think - how should this be addressed going forward? Is this going to be just another of the continual behaviors that kids need to be warned about? What do you think?
Mr. OEI: I think it is something that teens need to be warned about constantly, the risk that they perhaps are putting themselves into by not thinking through the implications of this, and likewise school administrators, as well, need some very good guidelines as to how to proceed with some of this.
There will probably always be a problem of the technology outpacing our ability to come up with the right policies and laws for dealing with these things. But I think certainly education, finding out as best we can what it is that's going on and then finding out ways to deal with it that don't make criminals out of the kids that are engaged in this kind of thing or administrators who are legitimately looking into questions where sometimes judgment of young people is in question.
MARTIN: And finally - and I want to thank you for taking the time on what has to be a day filled with complex emotions for you - do you feel vindicated?
Mr. OEI: I think certainly on a legal level, absolutely vindicated. I think Judge Horne, who issued the dismissal, couldn't have been clearer in the way he put the dismissal of all the charges.
I think the whole stigma attached to child pornography is so great that overcoming that - no, it's going to be a while before I feel that there's been a vindication of that. That's something I just have to work through, and hopefully people around me, those who supported me along the way, you know, they've helped me tremendously already with that, but as I go forward, I think that's something that I still have to work through.
MARTIN: Do you think you can?
Mr. OEI: Yeah, with a little bit of help, I think I can work through it, but it is going to take time. There's no question about it.
MARTIN: Ting-Yi Oei is an assistant principal at Freedom High School. He was prosecuted and later exonerated for possession of child pornography related to an investigation that he was doing at his school of sexting. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about it. We'll have a link on our Web site if you want to read it in its entirety. He was kind enough to join us from - well, I'm not really sure where you are, because you were very clear about not wanting to be on school grounds to have this conversation. So let's just say that you're somewhere in the proximity of your school.
Mr. OEI: Right. I'm in South Riding, Virginia.
MARTIN: Yeah, in South Riding, Virginia. All right, Mr. Oei, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. OEI: Thank you very much for having me.
MARTIN: TELL ME MORE contacted the commonwealth - I'm sorry, the commonwealth attorney's office about this case to get their perspective. The prosecutor, James Plowman, would not agree to come on the program, citing the demands of his trial schedule, but he did send us a statement criticizing Mr. Oei's handling of the sexting matter.
He specifically criticized him for not informing the parents of the boy with the original photo immediately. We'll post Mr. Plowman's email to us on our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page, at npr.org.
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