Video voyeur case in Nebraska high school renews caution about teens and digital sharing

(NET News Graphic: Joe McMullen)
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September 11, 2015 - 6:45am

A case of alleged video voyeurism at a high school in central Nebraska has the town of O’Neill rattled and law enforcement urging teenagers and their parents to consider the consequences of sharing inappropriate digital content.


Holt County Courthouse (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)


Holt County Attorney Brent Kelly says the initial response from St. Mary's High School helped solidify the prosecution of the case. He wrote about the early stages of the investigation.


"The school officials in this case had a well thought out policy regarding cell phones and locker rooms.  Simply put, the policy was that cell phones were not allowed in locker rooms and were to be collected from every student prior to entry into the locker room.  Unfortunately, the suspects in this case were able to smuggle two de-activated smart phones into the locker room.  I honestly don’t know what can be done by schools to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.  The school officials in this case acted swiftly and appropriately, and actually seized and preserved much of the evidence just prior to notifying law enforcement."

"Young people should view this incident as a cautionary tale.  While many are quick to classify this type of incident as a simple 'boys will be boys' kind of prank, the potential criminal repercussions are very severe.  Furthermore, the experience is traumatizing for the victims.  I hope that the successful prosecution of these cases will serve to deter kids from trying this type of stunt in the future."

"The victims and their families have shown great patience, courage, and restraint in allowing the investigation to run its course.  It is also important to note that the families of the suspects cooperated fully with the investigation and were essential to the efforts made to collect and eradicate the illicit files."

(Read the original court filing here)

“While many are quick to classify this type of incident as a simple “boys will be boys” kind of prank, the potential criminal repercussions are very severe,” Holt County Attorney Brent Kelly wrote.  “Furthermore, the experience is traumatizing for the victims.” 

In January, a pair of cell phones recording video were discovered in the girls' locker room at St. Mary’s Catholic School in O'Neill, Nebraska. An investigation by police revealed the videos had been shared with a small circle of friends in the community.

The incident, first reported by the Holt County Independent, occurred in January but was not made public until June when charges were filed against two teenagers accused of making and sharing the digital files. A 17-year-old admitted his involvement and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in Holt County Court. An 18-year-old pleaded not guilty and faces trial in district court on felony charges of unlawful intrusion. Three juveniles were also implicated.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the names of the two adults implicated appear in public court records NET News elected to not name them in this report. NET has a policy of not disclosing information which might identify victims of sex crimes.)

In a written reply to questions from NET News, Kelly said he hopes “the successful prosecution of these cases will serve to deter kids from trying this type of stunt in the future.” However the prosecutor added he’d been told “there have been many similar incidents involving other schools from across the state.”

With teenagers having access to a new generation of affordable, small, high-quality cameras the county attorney wrote, “It’s not hard to imagine that these incidents happen with some frequency.”

Ryan Sothan, the outreach coordinator for the Nebraska attorney general, said the sharing of any digital media is “extremely easy” even when it’s inappropriate for teenagers or even illegal.

“Simply through send and forward buttons on the garden variety smart phone or through email or social media,” Sothan told NET News.

As teenagers have more casually shared intimate material on electronic devices, commonly called sexting, Sothan has seen a shift in the types of complaints heard from adults about young people in their lives being victimized. It is not only an anonymous sexual predator who might collect and share personal sexual content.

“We are still very concerned, about online predators,” Sothan said, “but I would say during the time I've been in this office, I have seen a distinct shift away from the content of the sexual predator to content voluntarily, unwittingly perhaps, shared. “ In other words, it can be a teenager’s close friend who breaks their trust and publicly shares embarrassing photos or messages.

A Drexel University research study released last year found more than half of the college freshmen surveyed said they’d done some sexting. When teenagers, one in four sent explicit photos to someone. It’s so prevalent some teens may not see a problem with sharing inappropriate images when it can be hurtful and illegal.

“Sexting can be seen as the 21st century first base,” Sothan said. “It is widely accepted.”

Increasingly casual attitudes among teenagers about what they share online can have startling consequences.

It's living in the moment without an awareness of future implications,” Sothan said. Teenagers may not consider that sharing explicit material without consent can quickly cross the line into illegal cyber-bullying or a crime that could land someone in jail and on the sex offender registry.

Those consequences have come into sharp focus as the case in O’Neill made its way through the courts.

(Read the original charges here)

The 18-year-old alleged to be primarily responsible for the locker room recordings was reportedly thrown out of school just months before graduation.  

In July, he arrived for his first court appearance dressed in an orange polo shirt and khaki pants looking well-groomed and ill-at-ease. During the hearing Holt County Court Judge Alan Brodbeck did most of the talking, detailing the law allegedly broken: recording someone in a state of undress without their knowledge. It’s a Class 4 felony and jail time is an option.

The case will be heard this fall in district court after the accused teenager plead not guilty to being an accessory to the crime of recording without authorization.

About an hour later in the same courtroom the other defendant, a friend and fellow football team member, plead guilty to a Class 1 misdemeanor, admitting to helping store and share the video files.

When Judge Brodbeck asked the young man if the illegal videos showed a group of females “coming out of the showers” and he had subsequently “kept them on your phone” the obviously nervous young man quietly replied, “Yes, sir.”

He agreed to extended probation and community service. Three other juveniles were also charged and their cases are being addressed in juvenile court.

Sothan would not comment on the particulars of the Holt County investigation but said it appears to provide a useful example of where teenagers were likely not thinking about or perhaps caring about the impact on other people.

“We had someone who thought they were ten foot tall and bullet-proof,” Sothan said. “But when they distributed the content they got caught. They spun out of control. They were reckless with their behavior.”

He added parents, educators and others need to spell out the consequences for teenagers and “that can happen to anybody.” 

“It boils down to the poor choices. Poor choices,” Sothan said.  

Many residents of O’Neill were familiar with the boys charged with the recording and their families. Many also were familiar with the victims unwillingly recorded.

One victim of the recording agreed to share answers to questions from NET News submitted by email if we did not use her name. She echoed the sentiment of Kelly, the county attorney, when he urged people not to characterize the incident as an innocent prank.

"There is a line between boys having innocent fun and boys acting like sex offenders and taking our privacy,” she wrote.  “That is never okay.”

After she, her friends and their families were informed of the incident, within days of the police beginning their investigation, she recalls the first reaction was shock, not only by the act itself but learning those accused were classmates.

“I think this was a big deal because it is a Catholic school,” she wrote. “The boys should have known better than to do this. It has been ingrained in all of our heads throughout all of our religion classes that this is wrong.”

She added she was “kind of ticked off” because “some of those guys were my friends and to think that they could do that just made me sick.”

The person sitting next to you in class that you think is your friend obviously doesn't respect you enough to treat you as one.”

If there is any good news for the victims, police stepped in quickly enough to apparently head off wide-scale sharing of the videos. County attorney Kelly said he consulted technology experts with the Nebraska State Patrol and the Attorney General’s office to track, locate and seize all of the videos or other material that had been created and shared by the suspects.

Search warrants were executed on at least three email and cloud storage accounts since the investigation began. Kelly told NET News the investigators “combed through tens of thousands of text messages and emails” tracking where the material had been routed.

“Our goal was to protect the victims and give them peace of mind,” Kelly wrote. “We wanted them to be able to live their lives without fearing that an illegally taken photograph or video would show up to harass or embarrass them.”

“What is the teachable moment here?" Sothan said.  "It can happen to you. You have to obey the rules, be respectful and recognize that all of this content is stored, retained, it could be recalled at a moment's notice” which could be by law enforcement investigating where it originated.

Sothan commended both St. Mary’s High School and the public high school in O’Neill for addressing the dangers of sharing inappropriate digital content in the weeks that followed the original incident.. Neither school responded to requests for a comment.

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