WHITEHALL -- Whitehall Police and State Police are investigating a widespread teen “sexting” case centered in Whitehall, in which officers have discovered that at least 20 underage girls sent sexually explicit photos to at least 30 boys, officials said.
Most of the students involved are Whitehall High School students, but police did find that some students at other area school districts had been sharing the photos as well, Whitehall Police Detective Frank Hunt said.
The investigation began with a parent discovering that a girl had sent an inappropriate photo to her boyfriend via a cellphone, and he shared it with others. The practice is known as “sexting,” a play on the word “texting,” for sending a text message.
Hunt said police found that boys were exchanging numerous photos of girls.
“The photos became like trading cards, they were sent all over in exchange for other photos,” Hunt said.
Whitehall Police Chief Matt Dickinson said criminal charges may be filed against some of those involved and the investigation is ongoing.
It is a felony to take, share or possess an explicit photo of a person who is younger than 17. Those over age 16 who were involved could be prosecuted as adults.
“There are potential charges, but we’re going to see how it goes with intervention programs first,” Hunt said.
Police and Sexual Trauma and Recovery Services of Washington County has been assisting the young women who sent photos of themselves that have been spread via electronic devices.
Hunt said many of the teens just grasp that the practice is illegal and the photos can go anywhere in the world, circulate for years and wind up in the hands of pedophiles or posted on websites.
“Once you hit send, that photo can wind up anywhere,” Hunt said.
School Superintendent Elisabeth Legault said the school district plans to host in the coming weeks an educational assembly for students about the issue that will involve the FBI, local police and counselors.
High school Principal Kelly McHugh said Whitehall Police, State Police, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, FBI and the Sexual Trauma and Recovery Services will be taking part in the assembly, tentatively set for Jan. 14 in Whitehall Central School.
“I’d like to open it up to other districts as well as have parents attend,” McHugh said.
Weeks before the sexting investigation began, a young Whitehall man who allegedly sent an explicit photo of himself to a 12-year-old girl and tried to set up a sexual encounter with her was arrested and charged as an adult by Whitehall Police.
Cody M. Fitzpatrick, 17, of Whitehall was charged with disseminating indecent material to a minor, a felony, in connection with the photo he sent, court records show. He has been released, pending further court action.