Two school administrators on Colorado’s Eastern Plains were accused of possessing child pornography when they investigated a school sexting case last April. No one said the men were trying to distribute the images or had bad intent. The girl in the photos and her parents begged police and prosecutors to drop charges against the men.
But one of them, 32-year-old Bradley Bass, is facing up to 12 years in prison and the possibility of being branded a sex offender. He’d have to give up his career in education, and wouldn’t be able to parent his toddler and baby boy.
He’s considered taking a plea deal that would charge him with the misdemeanor of obstructing justice.
“The plea they’re offering potentially lets me stay as a husband and a dad, and to me those are the biggest priorities in my life,” Bass said. “I basically need to choose: Do I want to clear my name and risk losing my entire life, or do I want to not clear my name but not lose my life?”
Bass violated a Colorado law that says even unintentionally possessing explicit images of kids is akin to having child pornography. Even parents could be prosecuted under the broad language of the statute.
“It’s a terrifying thing,” said Jonathan Phillips, a former prosecutor in Virginia who has prosecuted and defended people in sexting cases. “There’s so much power in the prosecutor.”
Bass has a hearing Monday in the unusual case that has polarized the 5,300-person community of Brush, in Morgan County. Experts say it raises questions about the training administrators receive to deal with increasingly frequent incidents of students’ sexting and the legal liability they face for doing so.
Police and 13th Judicial District Attorney Travis Sides say state law is clear on the issue and that the prosecution is about student safety, despite the alleged victim’s opposition.
Sides declined to provide additional comment last Thursday, citing the upcoming hearing. Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Wiard is the lead prosecutor.
The case began when Bass and Brush School District’s director of secondary schools, Scott Hodgson, investigated a tip about students sharing explicit images in April. They found photos on a few students’ phones, saved in the disappearing photo application Snapchat. Worried the boys could delete the photos by logging into their Snapchat accounts remotely, Bass used his work cellphone to take photos of the students’ phones. They were then transferred to a folder on the school’s server that few people had access to.
After police learned the administrators had taken photos of the boys’ phones, they arrested them.
If you would have told me a year ago that something like this would happen in the little town of Brush, I would have laughed because I literally have lived there my whole life. I don’t laugh anymore. But I also don’t believe in our justice system the way that I used to either.
— Sonya Bass
“We ask the community to join us in moving forward on the pathway to forgive these atrocities,” a June 16 statement from the police department said.
The case has become a flashpoint in Brush, which uses the slogan “Homegrown Happiness” and calls itself “Brush!” with an exclamation point. The community is small enough that Bass and Brush Police Chief Derek Bos attended the same church. Bos’ family no longer attends.
Bass’ mother, Sonya, recalled having to mentally prepare to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy in the weeks after her son was first accused, not knowing if she would be confronted by people who believed the administrators were in the wrong. She now finds herself noticing police cars and wondering which officer is inside.
“There isn’t a part of our life this hasn’t touched in some way,” Sonya Bass said. “This is one of those times in your life where it’s defined as a before and after. And there’s no going back. ‘Before’ doesn’t exist anymore.”
Since the men were arrested this summer, Brush School District banned the use of cellphones in schools. It also paused a school resource officer program, in which a local police officer worked on district campuses.
Hodgson’s case was thrown out by a district judge in September. He was reinstated at the school in October. Bos, who wrote the press releases, is leaving his position in December for a job in the town of Eagle.
Bass has been on paid leave. His hearing is before 13th Judicial District Judge Charles Hobbs, who ruled on Hodgson’s case.
Bass’ wife, Tressa, said initial optimism she had that the case would be quickly dismissed dissipated over the summer when Bass’ lawyer said he could wind up in prison.
“I had a hard time wrapping my head around it and also picturing what our daily life would look like if Bradley was in prison,” she said. “How do the kids have a relationship with him? How do you be a parent in prison? I told him, divorce is not — I love Bradley and he’s my whole world and I don’t want to be with anybody but him. So then you’re like how do we maintain these roles and how do we maintain these relationships, and how do you let it not make you bitter? How do you not let it ruin your life?”
Case centers on if administrators kept police informed
Much of the case turns on when the school district alerted police that they were investigating the tip about explicit images.
I’m worried that the longer this goes on without police or school involvement the more the pictures of these young girls will be getting circulated through the school and the internet, social media, etc. The least amount of kids exposed to child pornography the better.
— Safe2Tell tip
Bass and Hodgson said police knew from the get-go. A parent on April 11 emailed Brush police officer Jared Barham, who was working as a school resource officer, to say she was concerned about “young girls sending inappropriate pictures to others,” and thought child pornography was a “serious issue.”
When she received no response from Barham, she called a school administrator who advised her to submit a tip through the confidential app Safe2Tell. She included much of the same information in the tip, which went to Hodgson, Brush School District superintendent Bill Wilson, Barham and police dispatchers. Barham emailed the parent who had submitted the anonymous tip at 4:45 a..m.
Bass and Hodgson followed up on the tip the morning after it came in.
Barham was working night shifts at the time, covering for a city police officer out on paternity leave. He wrote in police documents that he was not able to follow up on the case until he returned to work in the school in late-April. He asked Bass to send over a written report of what the school had investigated in the two weeks since the tip came in, which Bass did the next day.
After reading Bass’ report and talking to some parents — who said the administrators had taken photos of the boys’ phones — police began a separate investigation of Bass and Hodgson.
I feel like I cooperated. I guess I can see where they could twist some of my words to make it seem like I was obstructing, but at the end of the day, I gave (Barham) my full report. I gave him my full report at our agreed upon time…. The first I ever heard of us ‘obstructing them’ and keeping them in the dark was in the press release from my arrest. Jared never shared that. The school had never been told that. Bos had never shared that with the superintendent.
— Bradley Bass
On May 10, police got a warrant to search Bass and his office. Bos wrote a press release announcing “with heavy hearts,” that an administrator was under investigation for possession of child pornography.
The police department released another press statement on June 3 saying school staff had obstructed law enforcement’s investigation of the sexting case.
That was the first time Bass learned police thought he’d been uncooperative, he said.
Supporters of Bass and Hodgson don’t understand why police didn’t tell the administrators to stop investigating as soon as the Safe2Tell tip came in.
Barham referred questions to Bos, the police chief. Bos believes Barham saw the Safe2Tell tip almost immediately. But he said “a little bit of grace” should be extended to Barham for not responding right away.
“It came in at just before one in the morning,” Bos said, of the tip. “Does it rise to the level of urgency of waking people up at one in the morning? I would say no.”
Barham followed up between 4 and 6 a.m., Bos said, adding he couldn’t offer specifics due to the upcoming hearing. That was around the time Barham emailed the parent. The majority of tips the police department receives through Safe2Tell are “not that concerning,” Bos said. “We have plenty of Safe2Tells that come in and say ‘Fred called me a name last week.’” They still take them seriously, he said.
Boys’ phones not wiped until August
A sergeant with Brush Police Department, David Hosier, first contacted the administrators about the case on May 11, when he showed up at the school campus and searched Bass’ office. He told Hodgson then that his priority was getting rid of the sexually explicit images.
Bass’ work and personal cellphones were taken for analysis that day.
But it wasn’t until late-July and August that the boys and their parents — who had already been interviewed by police — were again called and asked to bring in the boys’ phones to have the images erased and information “extracted” and analyzed. At least one parent grew testy, saying the case kept being revived by police — each time, ripping the Band-Aid off again for the parent’s child who felt “awful” he’d been involved.
“Officer Barham should have taken the phone at the very beginning or asked for the phone — that way all the information can be deleted,” Hosier told the parent. He called it a “mistake.”
The district attorney’s office prompted police to collect the boys’ phones, after prosecutors reviewed potential charges for the students’ who sent or received explicit images, Bos said. Sides said the office will not be pressing charges against the students. A police press release said sexting investigations focus on educating kids to the dangers of sexting and erasing any images.
The phones should ideally have been taken earlier in the process, an oversight the department “definitely will own,” Bos said.
No evidence was found on Bass’ personal phone.
Every time the images touch the internet there’s a chance that they get spread somewhere else inadvertently or stolen by somebody else or further transmitted, whether you intend to or not. Our focus is containment of that.
— Derek Bos
Seven photos were found on the school server that could qualify as child pornography. Four were of the alleged victim. Three appeared to be the same image and were described as “all of the same” in police records — featuring the same body part and the same patterned shirt.
That person remains unidentified. Police are no longer trying to identify that person.
The alleged victim’s parents no longer support the police department. They said interviews they had with police were far more “victimizing” than any they had with school officials.
“The whole thing falls on us as parents. She’s our daughter. She’s our responsibility. And we take it,” the girl’s father said in a recent interview. “We’re definitely not trying to run away from the blame.”
But, he added, “what they’re doing to Bradley and Scott and my daughter — to me, I think it’s unfair and I think there are ulterior motives to it.”
Phillips, the Virginia-based attorney, is worried the case will have a chilling effect on teachers — making them afraid to do anything when confronted with a sexting allegation — and make students cautious to report.
“They’re associating a child — her image, her history with this bad decision, will now be magnified by the prosecution. And I just think that’s unfortunate,” he said. “The whole idea of why it’s so dangerous for kids to do this is because it doesn’t go away and it creates problems. This sounds like the biggest problem is because of the state’s actions.”