Six Willard High School students have been suspended for allegedly possessing or sharing on social media a potentially pornographic photograph depicting a fellow student.
Because the student reportedly shown in the picture is a minor, the Willard Police Department has launched an investigation to determine whether the photo constitutes child pornography, officials said.
Willard is located in Huron County, just south of Sandusky.
Upon hearing from concerned students, the school district immediately began investigating, resulting in the suspensions being issued late last week, Superintendent Jeff Ritz said.
“When we talked to each student, it just started snowballing,” Ritz said. “We’re very fortunate that all of the students were very honest and forthright and they all admitted to what they had done and what took place.”
The photo in question was reportedly shared among the teens through a social media app. The suspended students are underclassmen at the high school, students said. Upon being questioned by school administrators, the students admitted to their involvement in the dissemination of the photo, Ritz said.
However, the student reportedly depicted in the photo adamantly denied the minor was in the photo. Instead, the student said the photo depicted someone that looked just like the minor. The school district confiscated the students’ phones but did not search the devices, Ritz said. The phones will be sent to the police lab to be forensically searched by authorities.
Ben Holida, a senior at Willard High School, said the school’s mood has been noticeably different this week. News of the suspensions spread quickly among the students, he said.
“Stuff like this has happened before. I know other people do it,” Holida said. “It’s going to be unique to see what the punishment is. Plenty of people do it but you don’t think it’s a bad thing until word gets out about it.”
In recent years, the school district has made a concerted effort to further educate students and their parents about the dangers of sexting and social media. In fact, the district held educational seminars late last year, Ritz said. The school also hosted a different speaker earlier in the school year.
“Dealing with the issue for us is educating the kids, getting it to stop and educating them to know what they did was wrong,” Ritz said. “I think people know that it's a serious issue that is ever evolving. We just have to do a good job of educating our parents our staff and our students.”
According to the Ohio Bar Association, it is illegal to receive a photo when the nudity involves a minor. When child pornography is received, whether it is by text message, social media sites like Facebook or Snapchat, it must be reported to law enforcement right away for it not to be considered a crime. However, prosecutors have discretion whether to file charges, if at all.
While the child pornography investigation is ongoing, both Holida and Ritz hope it serves as a teachable moment for students and staff.
“As long as somebody learns from it and so long as no one gets hurt, that’s all that matters in the end,” Holida said.