CHICAGO — Staff at a suburban Chicago high school called 16-year-old Corey Walgren to the dean’s office to ask about a video he made of himself having sex with a classmate. A few hours later, the teen walked to the top of a five-story parking deck and jumped.
The suicide of the honor-roll student underscored a dilemma for schools when confronting students suspected of recording and sharing sexual images: Should school officials wait until parents arrive to pose questions and search cell phones for illicit photos or video? Or do they, as de facto parents, have the authority to investigate crimes that might include child pornography?
The issue also raises a high-stakes legal question because many child porn laws predate the phenomena of teens sharing sexual images by cell phone. And neither they nor their parents usually have any idea that doing so can trigger serious penalties, including being labeled a sex offender for life.
“It’s not that big a deal until it happens to your school,” said Joshua Herman, a lawyer who represents schools across Illinois. “Then it’s a nightmare.”
Police reports, court filings, witness accounts, emails and other documents obtained by the Associated Press offer an inside look at how Naperville North High School and police responded in the hours before Walgren’s death in January.
His parents have sued the school, accusing it in a federal lawsuit of unnecessarily traumatizing their son by warning him he could be charged and forced to register as a sex offender. They are seeking more than $5 million in damages.
“They scared the hell out of the kid, and that’s what drove Corey to kill himself,” said Maureen and Doug Walgren’s attorney, Terry Ekl.
In the documents, officials at the 2,800-student school in an upper middle-class suburb west of Chicago say they conveyed to Walgren the seriousness of the matter while also reassuring him that their goal was to keep it out of court.
It all began around noon on Jan. 11 after the 16-year-old classmate with whom Walgren had sex lodged a complaint at school. She had learned of the video that day from a friend and was upset Walgren made it without her permission. At first, she said, she was not sure the sex was consensual but later stated clearly that it was.
The family never blamed the girl and said she was right to report the video, Ekl said.
Walgren was interviewed for at least 20 minutes until his parents were called.
When contacted, Maureen Walgren said she could guarantee her son would fulfill any requirements to keep the matter out of court, according to the accounts obtained by the AP.
Corey Walgren may not have shown it, but what he heard must have caused him “psychological distress … humiliation and shame,” his parents’ lawsuit says.
The law has long recognized school officials as stand-in parents during the school day, with the power to investigate reports of wrongdoing and to discipline students without consulting parents.
But the lawsuit accuses the school of violating Walgren’s rights by not calling his parents first. The school board association instructs schools to call parents but does not say if that should be the first step.