A Brush School District administrator acted in “good faith” when he approved the preservation of sexually explicit text messages that were traded among high school students, a district court judge ruled Tuesday, dismissing a polarizing case that has divided for months the conservative Eastern Plains community of Brush.
Thirteenth Judicial District Judge Charles Hobbs dismissed eight child pornography counts against Scott Hodgson, director of secondary schools, saying that his actions, though “misguided,” shouldn’t be prosecuted.
“Obviously, the manner in which the evidence was preserved, while technically complying with the school policy, appears to have violated state law,” Hobbs said Tuesday in an order dismissing the case.
Hodgson, 38, was charged with four counts of conspiracy and four counts of complicity to commit sexual exploitation of a child after the school in April investigated a tip that students were sharing explicit images with each other. The tip, which came through Safe2Tell, was delivered to both school and local police.
Hodgson and Bradley Bass, assistant director of secondary schools, found sexual images on several students’ phones the next day. They were stored on Snapchat, a disappearing photo app, and administrators worried students could remotely log into their accounts and delete the images even if their phones were confiscated. Bass used his work cellphone to take photos of the students’ phones to document which boy had which images. The photos were then transferred to a school server that only a few district employees had access to.
When police learned that administrators had taken the photos, they began investigating Hodgson and Bass. Bass, 31, was charged with sexual exploitation of a child.
Knowingly possessing any explicit images of kids is child pornography, no matter the intent, under state law. Law enforcement officers investigating are one of the few exceptions to the rule.
Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney Travis Sides, whose office prosecuted both men, said Wednesday morning he disagreed with the court’s decision and believed it had applied the law incorrectly. His office has not yet decided if it will appeal, he said.
Brush Police Department Chief Derek Bos said he was disappointed in the judge’s decision but remained “undaunted” in the department’s commitment to children’s safety.
“We have the utmost faith and confidence in the District Attorney’s Office as they continue to navigate the legal landscape of this case and appreciate their continued dedication to the cause of justice,” Bos said in a written statement.
Experts in higher education and law have called the prosecutions of Bass and Hodgson unusual, given neither man was accused of retaining the images for sexual gratification or further distribution. Many child pornography laws were drafted for a time when explicit images could not be easily shared on cellphones — and educators’ may in turn lack the training on how to handle increasingly common incidents of sexting.
Hodgson’s lawyer persuaded the judge that Hodgson should be immune from prosecution as his actions were taken within the parameters of the district’s school safety plan.
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“It bears repeating that this is not a defense to the crime; but is evidence of good faith applicable to the immunity statute,” Hobbs wrote.
Hodgson said the judge’s order dismissing the case was a relief to him and his family, saying it had weighed heavily on them in recent months. He hopes it can also prevent educators with good intent from facing similar charges in the future.
“I feel like this sets a good precedent that protects people in education in the future,” he said. People who “do good things for kids shouldn’t be put through these kinds of messes. I hope that there’s something to be gained out of this.”
Bass has a hearing scheduled for Thursday before Hobbs.
UPDATED: This story was updated at 8:25 a.m. Sept. 28, 2022, to include the comments of District Attorney Travis Sides.