Rights Watch - Presumed Guilty
The harrowing tale of how one NEA member’s investigation of student sexting led to his own prosecution on child pornography charges.
NEA member Ting-Yi Oei
Photo by John O’Neil
On par with child molestation, possession of child pornography is the professional death penalty for any educator. But NEA and Virginia Education Association member Ting-Yi Oei suffered that devastating accusation and—$167,000 later—lived to tell the tale.
As the media have reported, sexting, or sending sexually explicit photos electronically, is the latest teen fad. One survey last fall concluded that fully 20 percent of girls ages 13 to 19 had engaged in sexting.
Teen sexting is also a felony in virtually every state: Anyone who takes, sends, or possesses a photo depicting a nude or scantily clad minor can be charged with a child pornography crime. Conviction brings with it a life sentence on the sex offender registry.
One of the early victims of the sexting craze is Ting-Yi Oei, a 30-year educator who worked most recently as an assistant principal at Freedom High School in Loudoun County, Virginia, a Washington, D.C., suburb. Acting on a tip, he confronted a student who admitted having a photo of a partially nude girl (arms covering her breasts) on his cell.
Oei’s principal told him to preserve the evidence. This led to a titanic mistake: the student emailed the photo to Oei’s cell phone, and he never deleted it. After investigating, Oei and his principal considered the matter closed.
A few weeks later, Oei suspended the same boy for pulling down a girl’s pants in class. In a meeting with the boy’s angry mother, Oei mentioned the sexting incident. After he refused to lift the suspension, the mother shouted, “I’ll see you in court.”
True to her word, she went straight to the local sheriff. Two investigators later showed up asking about the sexting incident. Assuming they were investigating the student, Oei voluntarily turned over his cell phone. Based on the girl’s immodest photo, the police charged Oei with “failure to report suspected child abuse.” Incredibly, after those charges were dropped, Oei was indicted in August 2008 for felony possession of child pornography.
He was arrested at school, handcuffed, and escorted to jail. The story was reported by local TV stations and the Washington Post, complete with his mug shot. The district reassigned him to a job with no student contact.
After seven agonizing months of legal wrangling, stress, and sleepless nights, the nightmare finally ended when a circuit court judge threw out the charges, ruling that the photo wasn’t pornographic. Last April, Oei returned to his job at Freedom High. In an editorial, the Post lambasted the “vengeful parents and zealous prosecutors” for using the criminal justice system to terrorize an innocent man. In June, recognizing the injustice, the school board voted to pay Oei’s legal expenses ($167,000).
The problem of teen sexting is here to stay, and, hopefully, Oei’s story is an aberration, the product of a politically ambitious prosecutor. But how does one avoid a similar fate? For starters, school employees should work with their administration to create a protocol for handling sexting incidents: When is it OK to view and confiscate student cell phones? Where should the evidence be kept? When should an employee report an incident to the state agency as a case of suspected child abuse? When should law enforcement be called?
In the absence of official guidance, these are matters best left to administrators, who can consult with legal counsel. And remember Oei’s lesson: Never transfer evidence of sexting to your own cell phone.
Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General Counsel