CANON CITY, Colo. - Canon City police say they are in possession of a smartphone that is believed to contain "several hundred" sexual images of high school students, and now officials are having a hard time figuring out what kind of punishment -- if any -- these kids will be handed out.
Former Judge Jim Miller says charging all of the students with sex crimes may not be realistic, adding the district attorney may have to consider other penalties.
"You have to think long and hard before you label these kids as sex offenders," said Miller. “It's bit of a trite phrase, but you can kind of look at this as a teachable moment for this kids. And that's not to dismiss how serious the offenses are," he said.
The students, potentially hundreds of them, were involved in taking the photos of themselves or passing the images from device to device. Canon City Police Chief Paul Schultz says his department is in possession of one of the devices and they plan to conduct a forensic investigation of the information it contains.
"We will be attempting to identify the people in those images," the chief said. "We will act as fact gatherers, where we will gather all of the information and make our best determination if, in our opinion, there have been any violations of the law."
Schultz told reporters Friday morning that his department is also currently seeking search warrants in connection with this investigation. It may take a month or more, he said, before the investigation reaches a state of "substantial completion."
According to Superintendent George Welsh, the case began with tips about the illegal behavior.
"Through the investigation we ended up acquiring some evidence, which we were able to access, that made it clear there were numerous images of students that are our students in Canon City Schools, who've apparently been swapping images," Welsh said. "That led us to believe we had something of tremendous scope to deal with."
Students allegedly concealed the illicit images inside apps that disguise themselves as calculators or media players. One such app at the center of this particular investigation is called "Photo Vault."
"We were able to ascertain that some of this activity has happened on campus," Welsh said.
After the police department's investigation is completed, the information will be presented to District Attorney Thom LeDoux's office. Once he examines that information, he'll have to decide if any of the students or their parents should be prosecuted.
The creation, possession or sharing of sexually explicit photos of children could carry a class-three felony charge.
LeDoux also told reporters that he asked investigators to check whether any aggravating factors are present in this case. Those factors would include the involvement of adults, bullying, actual sexual contact, retaliation for anyone who has come forward or the possibility that these have been posted publicly.
"I cannot predict or tell you exactly how we will respond to individual cases," LeDoux said. "We will do everything we can to work in (the community's) best interest, to come up with the best outcome."
Any student who believes he or she may be a victim in this case is asked to contact a School Resource Officer. Female students are asked to contact Officer Tanis Loomis, (719) 431-3420, email email@example.com. Male students are asked to contact Officer Steve Huskey, (719) 431-3299, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Friday, Welsh emphasized that his team plans to meet with all of the children at the school before they go home for the weekend.
"We don't want our kids to go home for the weekend with a cloud over their heads, waiting for a shoe to fall," he said.
Some students have already been suspended, he said, although he declined to specify how many.