Colorado students used hidden app to share hundreds of nude photos

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CANON CITY, Colo. (KKTV) - Police say hundreds of sexually explicit photos of Canon City High School students have been discovered, many of which have their faces showing.

The scandal involves more than half of the student population.

At least 500 nude photos that were taken or sent by students have been confiscated. That's what came out at two meetings for parents Thursday night.

School officials say the problem went unnoticed for so long because the students were using a type of app called "Photo Vault." The app appears on the phone as something typical like a calculator or an audio manager, but if you type in a passcode, the app reveals secret files.

"If you look at your kids phone, everything looks normal, but one of the apps turns out to actually be some way to send messages to and from others that aren't meant to be permanent," Superintendent George Welsh said.

The police department, district attorney's office and the school district all agreed: they have never seen nude photos being exchanged by students at this large of a scale.

The youngest person captured in the photos is reportedly in the eighth grade.

Police say anyone taking, sending and possessing nude pictures of underage students could face felony sex crime charges.

"You're talking about juveniles mostly, but not all students in high school are juveniles, there are some that are now 18 years of age which makes them an adult," said Captain Jim Cox with the Canon City Police Department.

After Thursday night's meeting, 11 News got the district attorney's insight on if any of the students involved in sending or sharing the nude pictures may have to register as sex offenders.

"I can say the district attorney's office, we do not take that lightly, we understand the implications of that. We certainly have no intention of requiring under the law a juvenile to register as a sex offender unless it is absolutely necessary," said Tom LeDoux.

"Right now these kids--both the ones who sent the pictures, stored the pictures, and the ones who have been violated--they need prayer and they need the support of their families and us as a community, but we still need to send a very stern message," said Georga Joyce, a Canon City High School parent.

The superintendent said some students have been suspended but would not say how many. The police said it is too early in the investigation to know if anyone will face charges, but they do expect to make a lot of headway in the next month.

Among the students involved in the scandal are several high school football players, the district said in a statement obtained by 11 News Wednesday.

The coaching staff and school administration decided to forfeit the next game.

"We just didn't feel we could field a team to play this weekend and know that everyone who was out there on the field was not involved in this. That's how big this thing is," said Welsh.

One football player told 11 News he's disappointed the season was cut short.

"I feel like it gives the whole school a bad name," said Thomas Devonshire, a sophomore at Canon City High School.

A letter was sent home to parents.

"I just wish kids would make better choices. In this day and age they should be smart enough to know that what they post online, they should know by now it just doesn't go away," said Stephanie Fontecchio, a Canon City parent.

Welsh said each student is being investigated individually.

"The pattern of behavior was somehow capturing some of those images and collecting them, unfortunately as a little bit of a game or contest," said Welsh.

The school district told 11 News they are working on a program to talk to students about social media and technology.

"I don't believe we've done an effective job, and I suspect most schools in Colorado, if not the United States, don't do an effective job of teaching about the ethical and legal use of technology," said Welsh.

STATEMENT FROM THE SCHOOL DISTRICT:
It has come to the attention of the Cañon City School District that a number of our students have engaged in behavior where they take and pass along pictures of themselves that expose private parts of their bodies or their undergarments.

This was discovered on Monday November 2nd as a result of a preliminary investigation in response to student reports and anonymous tips received through Colorado’s Safe2Tell system.

The matter has been turned over to the Cañon City Police Department who explain the legal issues involved as follows: A person can be charged with a class 3 felony if they have taken a picture of themselves showing a naked private body part and sent it to another person, have received such a picture and forwarded it to another person, or have received such a picture and retained possession of it over time. Police representatives have said the primary focus of their investigation will be to determine if any adults were involved, and to determine whether any photos were coerced. Formal charges will be determined by the DA's office.

Because a large number of our high school football players were implicated in this behavior the coaching staff and administration, after careful thought and consideration, decided that stepping on the field to play this weekend to represent the Cañon City community is just not an option. We realize this decision will unfairly penalize many of our fine young men who clearly did not participate in these actions. However, we concluded it was impossible to safely field an entire team representative of the personal qualities and characteristics that truly represent the history of the Cañon City High School football program.

In making this decision we made sure our actions would not hinder the police investigation, and were advised they would not. However, no matter what the police investigation uncovers the Cañon City School District will hold its students accountable for their actions as outlined in district policies relating to cyber bullying, sexual harassment, and irresponsible behavior.

Additionally, we recognize that as a district we will need to take a close look at how, or if, this incident should affect student activities participants who were involved but who are not currently in the midst of an athletic season or event.

Most importantly, the Canon City School District recognizes the need to formally address the 21st Century skill that all citizens use technology in a legal and ethical fashion. In the coming weeks the district will build a plan to further educate children regarding these concepts. Additionally, we highly encourage all parents to discuss this emerging issue related to modern technology directly with their children.