Rumors had been flying at Freedom High School in South Riding, Virginia that students were distributing nude pictures of each other on their cell phones. It’s a phenomenon, known as “sexting,” that’s become increasingly worrisome to educators across the country, and Ting-Yi Oei, a 60-year-old assistant principal at the school, was tasked with checking it out.
The investigation was inconclusive, but led to a stunning aftermath: Oei himself was charged with possession of child pornography and related crimes — charges that threatened to brand him a sex offender and land him in prison for up to seven years. Transferred from his school and isolated from colleagues, Oei spent $150,000 and a year of his life defending himself in a Kafkaesque legal nightmare triggered by a determined county prosecutor and nurtured by a growing hysteria over technology-enabled child porn at America’s schools.
… [T]he first charges were filed against Oei: failure to report suspicion of child abuse, a misdemeanor. The charge alleged that Oei had a legal duty to report the girl’s photo to her parents, and to state agencies or law enforcement.
“First of all, nobody thought this was reportable,” Oei says. “Who would have thought this was suspected child abuse?”
Oei also hadn’t known the girl’s identity and therefore wasn’t able to notify her parents.
The prosecution looked like an error right out of the gate. The photo didn’t show sexual activity or genitalia, and even the sheriff’s office conceded it was “inappropriate” but not “criminal” — making it unclear what the “child abuse” was supposed to be. In any event, as a matter of law, Oei was only required to report suspected abuse to his principal, which he’d done. It was then Forester’s job to report it to authorities if needed. Oei said Forester didn’t step in to defend him to authorities. (Forester didn’t return phone calls for this story)
… Even in this environment of prosecutorial excess,
Oei’s case stands out as likely the first to entangle an adult who came in possession of an image that even police admit wasn’t pornographic, and who did so simply in the course of doing his job.