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Suicide of teen who made sex video shows dilemma for schools

Suicide of teen who made sex video shows dilemma for schools

September 13th, 2017 in National News
This undated photo provided by the Walgren family shows 16-year-old Corey Walgren. Walgren, a straight-A student at Naperville North High School committed suicide on Jan. 11, 2017 after being summoned by school officials to their offices to ask about a video he made of himself having consensual sex with a classmate. His suicide highlights a dilemma for school officials who learn a student shared cellphone images that may qualify as child pornography. (Photo Courtesy the Walgren Family via AP)

CHICAGO (AP) — Staff at a suburban Chicago high school called Corey Walgren, 16, to the dean's office to ask about a video he made of himself having sex with a classmate. A few hours later, the teen walked to the top of a five-story parking deck and jumped.

The suicide of the honor-roll student underscored a dilemma for schools when confronting students suspected of recording and sharing sexual images: Should school officials wait until parents arrive to pose questions and search cellphones for illicit photos or video? Or do they, as de facto parents, have the authority to investigate crimes that might include child pornography?

The issue also raises a high-stakes legal question because many child porn laws predate the phenomena of teens sharing sexual images by cellphone. And neither they nor their parents usually have any idea doing so can trigger serious penalties, including being labeled a sex offender for life.

"It's not that big a deal until it happens to your school," said Joshua Herman, a lawyer who represents schools across Illinois. "Then it's a nightmare."

Police reports, court filings, witness accounts, emails and other documents obtained by the Associated Press offer an inside look at how Naperville North High School and police responded in the hours before Walgren's death in January.

His parents have sued the school, accusing it in a federal lawsuit of unnecessarily traumatizing their son by warning him he could be charged and forced to register as a sex offender. They are seeking more than $5 million in damages.

"They scared the hell out of the kid, and that's what drove Corey to kill himself," Maureen and Doug Walgren's attorney, Terry Ekl, said.

In the documents, officials at the 2,800-student school in an upper middle-class suburb west of Chicago said they conveyed to Walgren the seriousness of the matter while also reassuring him their goal was to keep it out of court.

It all began around noon Jan. 11 after the 16-year-old classmate with whom Walgren had sex lodged a complaint at school. She had learned of the video that day from a friend and was upset Walgren made it without her permission. At first, she said, she was not sure the sex was consensual but later stated clearly that it was.

The family never blamed the girl and said she was right to report the video, Ekl said. She later attended Walgren's wake.

Facing discipline at school was a new experience for Walgren. As he walked into the office at about 12:40 p.m., Dean Steve Madden said he had never seen Walgren under these circumstances because the teen had never been in trouble, according to the documents obtained by the AP.

Walgren quickly admitted what he had done. When the two teens were in his car, parked on a secluded street at night, he had turned on the video-recording function and dropped his cellphone by his leg after the pair talked and shared some alcohol.

Neither teen was visible on the two minutes of footage during their sexual encounter. It was the audio Walgren played for four friends, some at a school hockey practice. He never texted or emailed it.

Also in the dean's office was Brett Heun, a Naperville police officer assigned to the school.

The recording was hidden on an app that looked like a calculator. When Walgren opened it for the officer, it revealed photos of other partially nude girls, as well as the video, according to accounts obtained by the AP as early as last spring. Those images, which Walgren said were sent to him by others, were among contents downloaded by Naperville police. The department and school district did not respond to requests for comment.

The officer told Walgren the video "concerned child pornography, which is obviously illegal." Walgren nodded. Heun later said he wanted to impress upon Walgren the matter was serious. However, if Walgren cooperated, Heun told him, the matter could be kept out of court.

When sexual images are shared and discovered, school officials are not in complete agreement about best practices for responding, but there is consensus a student's cellphone should immediately be confiscated and police alerted. Guidelines from the Illinois Association of School Boards say not reporting explicit images of kids can itself be a crime.

The family's attorney contends a recording with no visible images of sex acts cannot qualify as child pornography. Some legal experts disagree.

Either way, critics said, child pornography laws should not be invoked to prosecute kids who share sexual images with other kids.