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A SWAT for ‘tough on crime’ so tough it ruins a career

Submitted by on Thursday, 7 May 2009 6 Comments

How on earth does it become right in anyone’s mind to indict a 60-year-old with a spotless professional reputation on possession of child pornography simply for doing his job?

Who can justify an employer abandoning a manager who faces criminal charges for doing what his boss told him to do?

And how can we get past all this sexting silliness – the modern incarnation of reefer madness – that caused it all?

“These charges are so toxic and incendiary,” Diane Curling told Wired. “Children need to be made aware of the dangers of sexting, but to intimidate public education officials and try to make it a felony to even touch something like this is terrifying.  . . . If we are not careful, we will find ourselves with a new McCarthy era. ”

Curling should know. She’s married to the high school assistant principal who spent almost a year battling accusations that destroyed his finances and his reputation.

And all because he did what the principal told him to do – look into rumors that students were distributing nude pictures of themselves via cell phone.

It was bad enough when officials charged teens in Pennsylvania and New Jersey as child pornographers for taking photos of themselves.

Officials in Loudon County, Virgina – on the Maryland border, just east of the District of Columbia – upped the ante when they charged Freedom High School Vice Principal Ting-Yi Oei with misdemeanor failure to support child abuse.

When Oei refused to resign, they had him indicted on felony child pornography charges.

The whole thing started in March 2008 when the school’s principal asked Oei to look into the sexting rumors.

He found one student with a picture on his cell phone – an image of the torso of a teen Oei could not identify, wearing only underpants, her arms mostly covering her breasts. While that might be exciting stuff to teens, it’s no worse than the average Victoria’s Secret ad, and it’s not pornography.

That’s what Oei thought, too. He reported that back to the principal, who told him to save the image for future reference. Oei had the student send the photo to his cell phone, then had the student help transfer the image to his office computer.

Case closed until the student was suspended for an unrelated incident two weeks later. Revoke the suspension or I’m calling the police, the student’s mother threatened.

Oei didn’t, and she did. A few days later, the police showed up. A few months later, Oei was charged with failure to report child abuse.

What child abuse? That’s what Oei wondered, too.

He couldn’t identify the subject in the picture, didn’t even know if she was a minor, so he had no one to report about. And, once again, the picture was not pornographic. Curiously, even the sheriff’s department admitted that the day Oei was charged.

“It does not rise to the level of a criminal case,” a department spokesman told The Washington Post in May 2007.

That didn’t stop overzealous prosecutor James Plowman from seeking, and obtaining, the child pornography indictment. Oei was arrested in August.

Oei took out a second mortgage on his home so he could pay legal costs. The district let him keep his job, but reassigned him away from students. Otherwise, there was no financial help for Oei until two teachers’ unions stepped in with loans and grants that covered 30 percent of his costs.

In March, the case was dismissed. The judge ruled that the photo wasn’t pornographic. Gee, wasn’t that what the sheriff’s department had said almost a year earlier?

“I still ask myself: Did anyone benefit from all this?” Oei wrote in The Washington Post two weeks after the case was dropped.

The district, which paid an administrator to not run a school for almost a seven months, certainly didn’t.

The taxpayers of Loudon County, who footed the bill for a frivolous prosecution, certainly didn’t.

And neither did educators through out the country, who have to be left wondering what exactly they’re supposed to do in such cases. The judge, you see, never ruled on Oei’s actions, but only on whether the image was pornography.

If I were a teacher or principal, I’d err on the side of not hearing “you have the right to remain silent” and report anything and everything, no matter how small and silly, to the police.

It beats having your booking mug plastered all over the Web on sites that label you a perv.

Loudon County, Stop Wasting America’s Time, and trashing people’s reputations, with this nonsense.

Make that two SWATs, because you know some “tough on crime” type elsewhere is going to find inspiration in this sad, sad incident.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Lora said:

    I heard this gentleman on NPR. The student actually sent the photo to Oei’s phone while in the presence of two other school officials who were assisting with his investigation into the matter. And, if I recall correctly, they did notify the “proper authorities” after digging into the matter. He has said that he’s never received an explanation as to why the prosecuting attorney chose to pursue this. Very interesting story. I recently spoke with an attorney who said that new media / social media has no precedent in law. Law enforcement officials and courts are applying existing laws, which may or may not be relevent (i.e. sexting = child pornography). He estimated that it could take a decade for these types of cases to make it through the courts in order to be addressed with new, up-to-date rulings.

  • Debra said:

    And the odd part about how the picture came to be on Oei’s cell phone: The person who runs the school computer lab couldn’t tell him how to get it directly from the boy’s phone to his school computer. Scary, isn’t it, when the campus “expert” can’t keep up with the kids.

    I suspect that estimate on a decade is about right. What’s frightening is how how much common sense is going to fly out the window in the meantime and how many reputations will be damaged. The “good” outcome for Oei is bad enough – Google him and see which stories pop up first. Had he been convicted, though, he would have had to register as a sex offender, just like the average perv on the street.

  • Diane Curling said:

    I very much appreciate your short yet thoughtful synopsis of my husband’s case; that’s not an easy accomplishment.
    Best wishes,
    Diane Curling

  • Debra said:

    Thanks, Diane!

    I was appalled the second I heard about this case and still am just astounded that, not only did it happen to begin with, but it managed to drag out so long with so little merit. But then, I’m not saying anything I’m sure the two of you haven’t wondered many times over the past year.

  • Diane Curling said:

    I think one reason the case was allowed to drag on is that although the small Loudoun County papers were skeptical early on about the Commonwealth’s Attorney pressing charges, the large DC media outlets had little interest in researching the case beyond their initial explosive hype. See below:



  • Debra said:

    That link should be required reading for anyone in the media.

    Part of the additional challenge for anyone who wanted to look into it would have been the grand jury process. Those proceedings are not public – for good reason in many cases, because there’s no need to air it if an indictment isn’t returned. But there’s also no chance for review of the “evidence” and lets the prosecutor get away with hinting darkly, “there’s more to this,” as she did in this case. That strikes me as at least slightly unethical. No, there wasn’t more to it, and she knew that.

    I, for one, would love to see what the prosecutor possibly would have presented that convinced the grand jury to indict to begin with. Guess there’s some tragic truth in the old cliche that a grand jury will indict anyone.