BRIDGEWATER, N.S. — Six male high school students in southwestern Nova Scotia are facing charges following an investigation into complaints that intimate images of at least 20 young female students were shared online without their consent.
Bridgewater Police chief John Collyer said Friday the case marks one of the first in Canada that involves federal anti-cyberbullying legislation introduced in late 2013 after the high-profile death of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons. The bill became law in March 2015.
The 17-year-old attempted suicide and was taken off life support after a digital photo of what her family says was a sexual assault was circulated among students at her school in Cole Harbour, N.S.
"We've been trying to get the word out, but youth live in the moment and they sometimes forget that once (an image) is out there, electronically, it's out there forever,'' the police chief said.
All underage at time of alleged offences
"It's a tough discussion, but it's one that needs to be held.''
Collyer said the six accused — all students at Bridgewater High School — were charged with distributing intimate images without consent and possession and distribution of child pornography following a year-long investigation.
"This activity was not necessarily taking place at the school,'' he said. "This was happening outside school hours.''
Four of the accused are 15 years old, and the other two are now 18. All were under 18 at the time of the alleged offences, which means their identities are protected from publication.
"I'd like to say I'm shocked, but I'm not.'' —Kari Countway, N.S. resident
The majority of the potential victims are also students at the school, Collyer said.
Some residents and visitors of the town on Friday said they were shocked by the news, while others said it's a sign of the times.
"I'd like to say I'm shocked, but I'm not,'' said Kari Countway of Chester Basin, N.S. "Kids are all about their technology — their iPads and iPhones. But they're not fully aware of what they are doing.
"Because of their ages, they're not looking into the big picture. To them, all they did was share a picture. They're not thinking how that affects them down the road.''
"It's hard to believe that they are that stupid that they would do that ... It's a lack of thought, a lack of knowledge.'' —Joe Laird, N.S. resident
The mother of three said she's warned both daughters to be careful about allowing others to take their photos. Her 13-year-old son has an iPad for use at school, and she's talked to him about responsible use.
She said some of his friends have been in trouble for having inappropriate cellphone photos.
"Girls were taking pictures of themselves and sending to a boy, thinking it was cool,'' she said. "Not cool ... It was a problem. It's a little scary. They didn't think of the consequences.''
She said she told her son: "Just because you can take a picture, doesn't mean you should take a picture. And you definitely don't have the right to spread it around just because you did take the picture.''
Six teens were charged with distributing intimate images without consent and possession and distribution of child pornography. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Joe Laird of Crescent Beach, N.S., was discouraged by news of the charges and alleged circumstances.
"It's pretty hard to believe that anybody has such a nasty outlook. Their imagination is zero,'' he said. "What the heck do they think they're going to get from it? It's just the destruction of the images of these people."
"It's hard to believe that they are that stupid that they would do that ... It's a lack of thought, a lack of knowledge.''
With the case before the courts, the police chief said he couldn't speculate on what motivated the alleged sharing of the images, though he said police do not believe any money was involved.
'A lot more potential victims' than initially thought
"It's a fairly complex issue,'' he said. ``There's a lot of different things taking place here ... I think it's fair to say that in some cases pressure was brought to bear.''
After complaints came in from school officials, investigators seized a number of electronic devices — mainly cellphones — and handed them to the RCMP Technological Crime Unit for analysis.
"At that point, we thought we had a small number of potential victims,'' Collyer said.
However, the Mounties found more photos, and a search warrant was drafted to obtain information from Dropbox, a U.S.-based file-sharing service, he said.
Using an international treaty, Canadian officials obtained the files through the FBI, but that took a considerable amount of time, the chief said.
"It became apparent that there was a lot more potential victims than we knew about initially,'' he said, adding that some of the potential victims have yet to be identified.