Durham high school students’ cell phones seized after sex acts reported at Riverside High
Durham County sheriff’s deputies are investigating allegations of students having sex in a Riverside High School classroom and whether one alleged act was posted live to social media.
Deputy S. Mills reported seizing cell phones from two Riverside students Tuesday as evidence of the “distribution of child pornography,” according to search warrants obtained by ABC11, The News & Observer’s media partner.
Mills also had planned to seize a third student’s cell phone, but Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen said that warrant may not have been served yet.
Durham Public Schools spokesman Chip Sudderth said the school system was aware of the investigation but did not have additional information about the students involved.
“Riverside Principal Tonya Williams and her team, as well as the Durham County Office of the Sheriff, are investigating allegations that some students engaged in inappropriate sexual activity on the Riverside campus that was then shared to social media,” Sudderth said in a statement Wednesday.
“Principal Williams has taken steps to help prevent such incidents from happening in the future,” the statement continued. “Due to student privacy laws we cannot share any more information on the subject, but we are investigating, and the safety and privacy of our students is our highest concern.”
In the warrant, Mills, a Riverside school resource officer since March 2018, said a female student approached him Monday about an altercation she had with a male student.
The girl said she argued with the boy after he allegedly recorded and shared a video of a non-consensual sexual act between them, Mills said. He then spoke with a school administrator, who told him there was a classroom where students were known to participate in sexual acts.
Another student also reported to Mills on Monday that she had seen the boy and another student having sex in the classroom, the warrant states. On Tuesday, after taking a written statement from the girl in the warrant, Mills said two other female students also reported the situation involving the girl.
The female students said the boy and another male student had posted the sexual act live on the Instagram social media app, which allowed all of their followers to watch it, Mill said in the search warrant. One student said the boy also shared the video with another female student.
Mike Lee, chairman of the DPS Board of Education, said the district is investigating to understand who knew about the incident and when, as well as looking at ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Generally, classrooms that are not in use are locked, Lee said, but he’s not sure what happened in this case.
“The privacy and security of our kids of of the utmost importance,” Lee said.
Sudderth said Wednesday evening that the classroom where the alleged incident occurred — “a computer lab that was temporarily unlocked and unoccupied” — has since been secured. It’s not clear yet when Assistant Principal Britton Brown, the administrator to whom Mills spoke, learned about the classroom, he said, or if there was more than one incident there.
“DPS senior administrators are in the early stages of reviewing the alleged incident at Riverside High School; we are cooperating with the Durham County Office of the Sheriff,” Sudderth said.
Breen said Wednesday the investigating is continuing and no arrests had been made.
Durham Public Schools officials investigated a similar case last year at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability in which a female student and a male student were believed to have been recorded having sex in the school’s weight room.
That investigation looked into whether the female student in that case knew the act was being recorded and if it had been shared with other students, as was rumored at the time.
The district also investigated a report last year that a female student at Jordan High School was recorded without her knowledge while she exposed her breasts to a male student. Police reported that the video was distributed via Facetime to other students at the school.
While those cases were not cited specifically, the Durham school board changed the district’s Student Code of Conduct in June after a teacher said its wording could discourage students from reporting sexual assaults and harassment.
The rewritten provision reads: “No student shall engage in any sexual assault, sexual violence , or sexual harassment against any person, including any conduct prohibited by Board Policy 4410, Sexual Harassment.”
Students can face several consequences for violating the student code, from in-school interventions and discipline to short or long-term suspension. Downloading and sharing videos of sexual acts between juveniles also can result in federal child pornography charges.
Adult crimes, punishments
Sexting — the act of electronically sending or receiving suggestive or sexual videos and pictures — has increased in recent years among teens, according to the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
A JAMA Pediatrics study found about 27 percent of teens had sent a sext and 15 percent had received one, the News & Observer reported last year. About 12 percent of teens had forwarded a sext without consent and 8 percent had a sext forwarded, the study found.
The consequences — even in consensual cases — can be tough for teen offenders in North Carolina, where they can be prosecuted as an adult and charged with a felony. Punishments can include up to 20 years in prison and a requirement to register as a sexual offender.
That not only causes immediate problems for teens at school and with college admissions and financial aid, experts say, but can bring long-lasting career and financial consequences, from difficulty finding a job to finding a place to live. Legal fees also can be significant.