Child pornography, peddled by children. That’s the serious accusation levelled at 10 adolescents arrested Thursday in the Montreal area.
The boys allegedly coaxed their friends and girlfriends into posing for pictures they later shared among themselves.
Aged between 13 and 15 years old, they were arrested in a sweep early Thursday in Laval, a suburb just north of Montreal.
They face various charges – including the production, possession and distribution of child pornography – and are expected to appear in youth court later Thursday.
A Laval police spokeswoman said they are hopeful the myriad files, at least one of them a video, were not widely distributed.
“We think that we intervened quickly enough to limit the spread of these pictures,” said Constable Nathalie Lorrain, a police spokeswoman.
The arrests come as the issue of “sexting,” and sharing sexually explicit images, has been front-and-centre across the country with the high-profile deaths of two teenage girls within months of each other after they were victims of bullying and harassment.
Amanda Todd, 15, took her own life last October after allegedly being the target of online sexual exploitation, bullying and harassment. Her story drew international attention after she went public on YouTube with the harassment she had been subjected to.
Halifax teen Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, hanged herself in April after months of bullying following an alleged sexual assault in 2011. An image of the assault was allegedly captured and widely distributed.
So far, police say they have identified seven victims – with all of the girls in the same age bracket as the accused. Police have met with the girls and their parents.
Lorrain said police have yet to go through a number of devices they seized Thursday. Other victims might be identified once police go through smart phones, laptop computers and tablets that were all seized as part of Operation Magma.
“The study of these items will allow us to know who received these images and if there were any more victims,” Lorrain said.
Police said the network included students attending three English-language high schools in Laval. The schoolboard overseeing those schools says they are co-operating with authorities and are sending a letter home to parents to explain the situation and offer assistance to students that need it.
“I want to take an opportunity to implore parents to be vigilant in regards to their children’s use of technology,” said Stephanie Vucka, director general of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier school board.
“Many of the incidents we end up dealing with at school occur off-premises and off school hours but come back into the school setting once students are together.”
Vucka said she couldn’t say if any further sanctions were coming for the students arrested Thursday, saying the matter was in the police’s hands for now.
She said issues of sexting and bullying are widely discussed at school.
“It’s certainly not just prevalent at Sir Wilfrid Laurier, this is an endemic issue and it’s being discussed in Quebec and Canada-wide,” Vucka said.
The Laval investigation began in earnest in October after a staff member at one Laval high school noticed that kids were huddled around a phone, looking at an image of a girl that was clearly sexually explicit.
“This teen was taken to school administrators and the parents were also contacted,” Lorrain said. “An investigation was triggered.”
Police say the first images were found within that teen’s phone. The victims were identified and said they had sent photos, but not to the teen in question. Over the course of the investigation, police identified more teen boys as part of the so-called network.
Some victims posed willingly and were in relationships with the accused.
“That’s what made them confident,” Lorrain said.
“Because they were actually sending the picture to their boyfriend, but of course this boyfriend was sending it to one friend and then another.”
Others had to be coaxed into posing.
Apparently none of them knew, however, that the images were being shared.
Lorrain said there were no threats or intimidation or money exchanging hands.
But in certain cases the boys were insistent. In one case, one of the accused is alleged to have sent a picture of himself to push the girl to do the same.
Police frequently discuss the issue at schools – with the message being one of respect for oneself and one’s friends.
The consequences of such images can be dramatic and create life-long problems, she said.
“It can do a lot of damage, actually,” Lorrain said.
Lorrain said the 10 accused and their parents were aware that a police investigation was underway, but were not informed they were going to be arrested Thursday.
Lorrain said some of the boys’ parents were not happy with police.
“Some of them were almost mad at police for even thinking about charging their boy with something like that,” Lorrain said.
“They’re minors, too, but it doesn’t excuse the fact they could have ruined someone’s life with that.”
Thursday’s arrests and seizures involved 40 police officers, half of them specialized investigators.