Madilyn, now 18, had heard rumors of the pictures a few days earlier, but didn’t think anything of it. That is, until a friend called while she was at the salon, and said, “I just saw pictures of you naked.” Madilyn asked a classmate for a link to the Dropbox, an online file-sharing service, and opened it up.
She says she discovered an entire folder dedicated to her, labeled with her name, and full of topless pictures she'd sent a boyfriend, when she was 16. Another folder, “miscellaneous,” contained more of her photos.
“It was honestly terrifying,” Madilyn told me over the phone.
We’re used to hearing stories like this out of universities. At Penn State this past March, members of Kappa Delta Rho fraternity were caught posting photos of passed out, naked and half-naked women to a Facebook page, without consent. It became a national news story, and the fraternity was suspended for three years. But, just 197 miles away, on a quiet, grassy campus, nestled in a Pennsylvania suburb, a group of boys were brewing an eerily similar scandal of their own — only these boys were in high school, and the girls in the pics they were sharing were teens, mostly under 18.
“People were looking at me in the hallway,” she said. “All of these people I didn’t know had seen my naked body.”
In the Dropbox link, Madilyn says, there were photos of dozens of girls in Madilyn's class. Almost every girl had her own folder, labelled by first name. (If there were multiple girls with the same name, a last initial was added for clarity.) According to multiple students, there were girls with their faces showing, and other girls with full body shots. The Dropbox included a girl, as young as 14, “spread eagle with her face in the picture,” said one student (all students spoken asked to remain anonymous).
The system was quite simple: The boys involved would send acquired photos from past or current sexts via hookups to a text messaging group, without consent from said ex-girlfriends or girlfriends. The photos would then be added to the Dropbox.
According to the students involved, the Dropbox started at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. And, like all high school secrets, it became less and less of one as the year progressed. Students tweeted it, shared the link via text, and even opened it on the school’s public computers.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Madilyn said, “I was panicking.”
Although some people chose not to look at all, apparently almost everyone knew about it. Not one student said they heard anyone telling others not to look. Madilyn received stares in the hallway, which made her feel as if everyone had.
The next day at school, she left after first period.
“I just felt people were looking at me in the hallway,” she said. “All of these people I didn’t know had seen my naked body.”
I found out about the Dropbox file two days after Madilyn did, on Friday, March 27, from my younger brother — we both grew up in the school district. I received a text from him that said, “Have you heard the stuff going on at North Penn?" I had not. But, it didn't take me long to find out.
A quick Twitter search put me in touch with Madilyn. She had been tweeting up a storm, and directing tweets at people who were condemning the girls for sending their photos in the first place. This is commonly known as “victim blaming,” or the act of placing responsibility for a crime on a victim. She was not happy.
“What message is being sent out, that we’re being called stupid for trusting someone?” she told me.
She wasn’t the only one feeling angry and hurt.
“What message is being sent out that we’re being called stupid for trusting someone?”
A junior named Blair*, who asked to remain anonymous, said she received texts from friends around the same time Madilyn did, asking if she'd ever sent nudes. When she responded “no,” friends sent her a picture of a naked girl from the Dropbox. Underneath the image of the girl was Blair’s name, but she says the person in the photo isn’t her. However, the damage was already done, and her name is associated with the photos.
That same day, a boy in her class told her he was upset. “He said he would be happy if I put out more nudes,” she wrote. “I ran to the bathroom and cried.”
About a week after the Dropbox went public, North Penn's principal Burton T. Hynes, released his own statement to the media, urging anyone with information to contact the school or authorities. The school district also released a statement echoing Hynes' sentiments that they’d become aware of “allegations that students of our school community may have shared inappropriate pictures and videos via an online format.”
“Please know that NPSD and local law enforcement officials are working together on this matter and take alleged activities such as these very seriously,” it read. Mr. Hynes and North Penn School District did not return repeated requests for comment.
Paul. T. Dickinson, the Police Chief of Towamencin County, which includes North Penn, said in a phone interview this week that he can't comment much about the case. Almost three months later, the investigation is still open and underway by the DA office, because the suspects involved fall under the jurisdiction of multiple districts.
Under Pennsylvania law, the girls who took nudes and the boys who exposed them could both face criminal charges
Dickinson was unable to comment on whether any students were pressing charges, or what would happen to the suspects if evidence directly linked them to the Dropbox. But under PA law, the girls who took nudes, and the boys who exposed them, could both face criminal charges. According to PA law, the Dropbox victims could be legally charged with misdemeanors, or perhaps class III felonies, even though they never consented to the distribution of their photos (the lawyers we spoke to said it's very unlikely any prosecutor would go after the girls).
When I tried to reach out to at least five boys allegedly tied to the Dropbox, all but one ignored me. One, who was rumored to have been the creator, did call the number I left in a Facebook message.
“I’d rather not comment on that,” was all he said.
Dropbox launched in 2007, and while it’s impossible to say how many times it’s hosted folders of naked high schoolers, we’ve seen a handful of similar stories just this year: This January, a Miramonte High School student reporter revealed 650 nudes in a Dropbox linked to the students at the Orina, California school. Between December of last year and this February, students at Hough High School in Charlotte, North Carolina were busted for a Dropbox with 75 nudes. This April, male students at Joplin High School in Joplin, Missouri, uploaded around 600 nudes to a Dropbox account.
Dr. Amy Hasinoff, author of Sexting Panic, and an assistant professor of Communication, University of Colorado Denver, says sharing naked pics is nothing new.
“It’s not something that’s unique to teens or these guys,” Hasinoff told me during a phone interview. “They’re just enacting cultural norms that say as mainstream culture, we basically blame women when they’re violated.”
“Slut-shaming used to be limited to people talking. I think technology allows the problem to manifest itself in new and intense ways,” she said. “The tech itself is not a problem, but is showing us a problem we need to address.”
When I asked Dropbox if they had plans to monitor the nudes uploaded, a spokesperson responded that if they find anything in their system that violates their terms, the uploader is suspended or revoked certain privileges, and the person is reported to the authorities.
“We act quickly in response to reported violations of our Acceptable Use Policy, and are constantly improving how we detect and prevent Dropbox users from sharing content that violates our terms,” she said.
Madilyn suspects that the boys involved at North Penn came from different social groups, with most of them from sports teams, and some who even have girlfriends.
“Each group contributed to it a little bit,” she said,“It was like how they bonded.”
A few days after the news spread, Madilyn found out that a boy she sat near in math class had allegedly contributed a few photos of his girlfriend to the Dropbox. When she confronted him about it, he did not confirm nor deny.
When she asked him if he had sent his girlfriend's photos to the Dropbox, he told her, “We’re not going to talk about this."
"One of her classmates had sent 40 photos of his ex-girlfriend. They had dated for four years."
She said another one of her classmates had sent 40 photos of his ex-girlfriend (they had dated for four years) to the Dropbox.
One of the boys involved allegedly boosted about not getting caught in the hallways.
Madilyn's experiences with the boys supposedly involved reflects that mindset. She found it baffling that the boy she had become friendly with in math class could do something so disrespectful.
“When someone tells you you’re sexy and they want you, it makes you feel good about yourself. So, you do what it takes it makes you feel wanted,” Madilyn said.
Not everyone sees it that way, however. Two male seniors at North Penn, who I spoke with, weren’t involved with the Dropbox. But, they had seen it, and said there were people who felt bad for the girls — but most didn’t.
“Ultimately I believe both sides are equally blamable here. Females want to get intimate with whomever they choose, and that is their decision. However, they can't start crying wolf when what they send to men gets leaked out to other men,” a senior told me in an email. “I'm a male. I will tell you that males can be awfully crumby sometimes. This is just what happens when you pass along a piece of yourself to a boy who just is not emotionally, mentally, or morally strong enough to handle not sharing that with his mates.”
Still, Madilyn, who says she struggled with depression when she had first started sending nudes, has hope that she and the other girls involved will rise above the humiliation. But, she's not sorry for sending her photos to someone she thought she could trust.
“It says a lot more about the person you’re not supposed to trust than about me,” she said.
*Names have been changed to protect the sources' identities.