Last May, students began transmitting sexually explicit images and videos on cell-phone text messaging apps such as Snapchat, Facetime, iMessage, KiK and others, according to a press release from the Newtown Police Department.
Three male juveniles were arrested Tuesday night and charged with obscenity, transmitting or possession of child pornography by a minor as well as felony counts of possession of child pornography and obscenities as to minors, according to Sgt. Aaron Bahamonde of the Newtown Police Department. It's unclear whether the juveniles have attorneys.
Another 20 students have been referred to a community-based Juvenile Review Board, which delivers a "consequence on the juvenile-aged offender, yet keeps the juvenile offender out of the State of Connecticut Criminal Justice System," according to the press release.
The charges were brought after a six-month investigation that included dozens of interviews with students and parents, as well as executions of search and seizure warrants, the press release says.
Authorities were alerted after the incident was brought to the attention of school officials.
It was their "quick action" that contained the spread of explicit media to 50 students in a school of roughly 1,800, a difficult feat in a digital world known for elements spreading rapidly on the Internet, Bahamonde said.
Some of the students who received copies of the images tried to profit by selling the pictures and videos for $10-$20 apiece, Bahamonde said.
The students whose images were shared were also "held accountable for their action in taking the pictures and forwarding them," but Bahamonde said they are also victims who never intended the images to go beyond the person to whom they were sent.
"There are victims here, real victims. You can imagine, as a student, going to school knowing others might possess pictures of you when you only intended one person to have them," Bahamonde said. "It can be devastating on your psyche and you don't know what can happen afterward. Peer pressure is hard enough in high school."
The names and ages of the three teens who are facing charges have been withheld because they are minors, Bahamonde said.
No court date has been set for them, but they are expected to appear in Danbury Juvenile Court in the "next couple of weeks," according to Bahamonde.
In Colorado last month, high school and middle school students
accused of exchanging hundreds of naked photos were spared criminal charges but a district attorney warned of more severe consequences if it happened again.
Thom LeDoux, the district attorney for the state's 11th Judicial District, said investigators did not find aggravating factors like adult involvement, the posting of graphic images to the Internet, coercion and related unlawful sexual contact.
He added that while the "decision does not condone or excuse the behavior of the individuals involved," authorities wanted to avoid "the inequities in punishing just those that have come forward, have been identified, or have cooperated with the authorities."
Colorado is one of 30 states without modern sexting laws, which often provide leniency to adolescents as long as the sexting is consensual and is considered a misdemeanor mistake in exploring sexuality.
Of 20 states with sexting laws -- including Connecticut -- 11 of them classify the offense as a misdemeanor,
prescribing out-of-court "diversion" remedies or informal sanctions such as counseling, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center run by Dr. Sameer Hinduja and criminal justice professor Justin W. Patchin of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Four of the 20 states, however, also allow for felony charges.
Florida and Utah, for example, allow for a felony charge for repeat offenders. Georgia law says the charge depends on the facts of the case.
The fourth state, Nebraska, is the only state among the 20 that makes all sexting offenses a felony, but grants an affirmative defense to those age 18 and younger if the sexting was with another minor at least age 15 and was consensual, without distribution to another person.
Even with all the new laws, most of the country remains far behind the fast-moving pace of teens and technology, analysts say.
The 20 states with modern sexting laws are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.
In 2012, Newtown was the site of a mass shooting. Adam Lanza, 20, killed himself after killing his mother and 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School.