Shamed by nude photos, girls who turned to Seaman High School

Steve Noble, superintendent of Seaman USD 345 since 2016, updated board of education members this week about the sitution at Seaman High School involving allegations of the use of nude photos to blackmail and harass female students. [Rex Wolf/Special to The Capital-Journal]

Seaman High School girls who turned to school leaders when tormented over nude photos say they repeatedly were met with indifference, even as harassment intensified and more girls complained.

Interviews with girls, boys, parents and law enforcement, as well as a review of emails and screenshots, reveal a culture dating to at least 2015 in which boys at the school have solicited and collected nude photos of classmates, using a social media account with login credentials shared by multiple students. At least one of the girls says she was motivated by threats of murder and rape to provide nude photos of herself. Others willingly sent photos to boyfriends before breaking up.

All of the girls say they frequently receive requests from boys and men, including some they don’t know, for nude photos.

Dan Curry, an attorney with extensive trial experience in cases involving sexual harassment and education, says federal law requires a school to take steps to stop sexual harassment, regardless of where it happens, because it impacts the learning environment. The girls say they never were provided with the support required by Title IX, and the school district refused interview requests for this story.

When The Topeka Capital-Journal first wrote about this topic in late January, school leaders advised students not to discuss the issue at school or risk facing legal action. They also ordered a boy sympathetic to the girls’ complaints to cancel a planned sit-in and apologize.

In private emails following the news coverage, Unified School District 345 superintendent Steve Noble proposed organizing a community discussion with a panel that would include clergy.

Before an investigation can proceed, Shawnee County undersheriff Phil Blume said, detectives need evidence of a crime and cooperation from potential victims. Students and parents said the girls are reluctant to come forward because they are shaken by shame and misguided fears they will be punished.

Sgt. Todd Stallbaumer, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said no offense report has been created for any of the complaints “because an alleged victim could not be established.”

Pointed threats

For one girl, the requests began three years ago when she was a freshman. A guy she didn’t know on Snapchat “demanded” she send him nude photos. At first, she rejected him.

“When I kept refusing nudes, he said he’d murder me,” she said.

He also said he would rape her, then progressed to threatening her family members, persuading her to send partial nudes for a year and a half. At one point, a nude photo of her briefly appeared on Instagram.

As the harassment continued, she discovered other girls had received similar threats. Before her junior year, she alerted the school’s security officer to her situation.

She said she was told the school couldn’t do anything because it didn’t involve school property. She filed a report with Topeka police, but her torment didn’t end.

The girl’s frustrated mother pleaded with Seaman High School principal Mike Monaghan and other officials to provide a straight answer about how they were handling the situation. Instead, she was given information by a sheriff’s office detective on how parents should talk to kids about the dangers of social media.

Nobody at the school was taking her daughter seriously, she said, and “it felt as though (my daughter) was on trial.”

Several of the girls and parents pointed a finger at one particular boy they suspect is behind the threats, but they couldn’t provide proof. Others describe a larger group of boys who have access to photos and a widely circulated list of 15 girls whose images they claim to have collected. One girl said she was confronted with a nude photo falsely attributed to her.

Another mother, who said her daughter was harassed by boys at school after the Capital-Journal wrote about this issue, said the boys assign points to photos and treat them like trading cards.

Several girls were aware of a spreadsheet containing contact information for members of a student organization. They believe a boy used the contact information to FaceTime girls from a fake account. Those who answered the call were presented with live video of the boy exposing himself.

A senior who learned girls in his school had been threatened organized a sit-in for Jan. 29, hoping to get the attention of administrators. He said school leaders told him to stop talking about the situation, suggested he could be vulnerable to a lawsuit, and ordered him to remove a social media post about the protest. They also wanted him to apologize to an accused tormentor.

He canceled the sit-in but refused to apologize.

Program response

Faced with the scrutiny that followed news coverage of the harassment in his district, Noble told a concerned parent he was working to host a community conversation.

“While it is early in the planning stages, we hope to assemble adolescent behavior experts, school personnel, students, clergy, law enforcement, parents, community members, technology experts and others,” he wrote in an email. “Together, we can become more informed and strategic in addressing this with our kids.”

School board member Christie Appelhanz questioned the value of involving clergy, saying it indicates “a moral approach” when trauma experts would be of better service.

Noble, now in his second year leading USD 345, explained many students attend church and youth ministries.

“We should leverage this opportunity to inform and educate,” he said.

Last week, Monaghan sent Seaman families a link to a 15-question online survey asking them about USD 345 programs, whether they feel welcome at the school, and how well staff members listen.

At Monday’s school board meeting, board president Fred Patton addressed Monaghan and other Seaman officials after Noble spoke on the “cultural issue” of sending nude photos.

“It’s not been easy for you as you dig through these issues,” Patton said.

None of the girls or parents who spoke to the Capital-Journal was satisfied with the school’s handling of the situation, complaining about the lack of direction they were given and the school’s reluctance to get involved beyond referring complaints of harassment to law enforcement. One of the mothers said school leaders told her it was “not a school matter.”

Curry, a Kansas City attorney, said Title IX law requires school officials to take steps to stop sexual harassment, regardless of whether it involves school property. Even if it happens away from school, officials need to investigate.

“They have to take steps to stop it once they know it’s happened,” he said. “Kids have to be free from sexual harassment in order to get an education.”

District spokeswoman Candace LeDuc declined multiple interview requests to talk about guidance the district offered to students.

‘Ashamed and alone’

Blume and Stallbaumer said early inquiries into a complaint the school turned over in September were stymied by a lack of evidence and difficulty contacting the alleged victim.

A detective reached out to the girl’s father, who wasn’t aware his daughter had sent nude photos to an ex-boyfriend. They also noticed a social media post saying she didn’t want her tormentor to harm himself.

In an interview for this story, the student who initiated the complaint said she discovered photos of other girls in a file management application on the ex-boyfriend’s phone. She said she took screenshots as evidence to an assistant principal, hoping to protect the girls.

Girls are afraid to come forward, she said, because they don’t have evidence, they believe the school will punish them, they are afraid they will get in trouble from law enforcement, their parents will ground them, and they will be stigmatized socially.

Harassment continued throughout the fall.

When the sheriff’s office received new information in January and became aware of other possible victims, the investigation gained “new life,” Blume said.

Because the girls willingly sent the photos, the boys who ask for and view them wouldn’t violate state sexting law unless they re-transmit the photos. Blume said this case involves a shared account, which allows the images to be widely viewed without being transmitted. However, if the threats can be proven — a difficult task, because Snapchat messages quickly disappear — the investigation could produce a criminal charge.

In a lengthy email to Noble earlier this month, a concerned parent said she believed the girls send nude photos not because of a lack of knowledge but because of peer pressure.

“They can’t leave the bullies or peer pressure inside the school because it follows them through their social media,” the mother wrote. “And when the kids give in, as parents we feel like we failed and are judged and the girls feel a lot shame and the inability to tell their parents.

“Since my kids were young I have always told them that I love them and there is nothing in the world that could ever change that. I was crushed when I heard my daughter talking about feeling ashamed and alone, to hear her say she was afraid to tell us because she didn’t want to feel judged. …”

“I believe the reason many of these girls have not come forward is that feeling of shame. Honestly, I believe the same for some of the boys involved. I think that some of them have participated simply due to wanting to feel included and feel shameful that they have participated.

“I believe parents that have chosen to be anonymous and not let their child go on record is because they feel like they have failed and will be judged as bad parents. And the only way to combat this is finding a way to inform them and help them see a different perspective.”

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