Jan. 24, 2008— -- When innocent photos of her son's water polo teammates -- resting on the pool deck, getting out of the water, stretching before a match -- appeared on several gay pornography Web sites, La Donna Verloop was outraged.
Verloop is one of dozens of parents in Orange County, Calif., who learned recently that pictures of their sons participating in school water polo competitions were posted alongside images of graphic sex and subject to a bevy of explicit comments.
"I was totally shocked when I first saw the pictures of the boys online," said Verloop, whose son attends Foothill High School in Pleasanton, Calif. "The thing that is so frightening about it is the hopeless feeling the boys have and that there is nothing we can do. These kids just want to play water polo."
Parents say images appeared on at least five sites and included pictures of boys from several local schools, some as young as 14. The faces of the boys are not obscured and the names of their high schools are often easily read on their caps and swimsuits.
The incident raises questions about individuals' privacy when their pictures are taken in public. In general, lawyers told ABCNEWS.com, photos taken in public of minors older than 13 and that are not considered graphic are allowed to be posted online without obtaining permission.
"We have a huge problem with both gay and heterosexual predators attending sporting events and taking pictures of athletes and cheerleaders," said Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.
"Federal child pornography laws apply if a child is under 18, if there is nudity, sex or mock sex, if there is a focus on the genitalia, or if the images are intended to promote lewd and lascivious acts. Under the Child Online Protection Act, any images of children 12 or younger have to be taken down, but these photographers know that high-school-age kids are older than 13, and that there is not much legally that can be done to stop them from posting."
The parents contend these images constitute child pornography because the Web sites feature only images of the boys when they're not actually playing and often crop images to focus on their swimsuits and genitals.
"They juxtapose the photos next to really explicit images, and by the time they're done cropping them, we think they can be considered pornographic," said Joan Gould, an international water polo official and spokeswoman for a group of Orange County players' parents.
"This isn't just happening with kids from California," she said. "We've found pictures of kids in Michigan, New York and across the country. They're posted on message boards for adult men all over the world who lewdly discuss their physical attributes."
Gould said she has contacted the FBI, and that federal investigators "were sympathetic but said there is no legal recourse. On the surface it is legal."
Parents in Orange County were further upset when they said they found evidence that some of the photos were taken by someone who worked for the University of California at Irvine Police Department.
Parents said they connected the IP address of one of the sites where many of the pictures appeared and a user name responsible for posting images on other sites to the individual.
The person allegedly tied to the photos could not be reached for comment, but the UCI police said it was investigating the matter.
"UCI is aware of the issue and the matter is under review," said university spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon. "The UC police department is initiating an independent investigation and cannot comment on personnel issues."
The father of one boy in the Costa Mesa area, who asked not to be identified, said the images are intended to be exploitive.
"These pictures don't show anything about the sport. All they show are young children in Speedos," he said. "All the pictures were taken out of the water, when the kids are doing dry land stretches or adjusting themselves. There are no action shots of them actually playing."
He said he recognized at least 30 children in the photos and had received no response after filing complaints with the state attorney general and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office.
"There is no clear law here to protect these kids," the father said. "When confronted by us on message boards, these photographers continuously cite their First Amendment right, but the First Amendment was written at a time when people could never have anticipated this sort of thing."
The father said some of the boys have had to go through counseling or have quit the team because of negative comments made by other students who learned their pictures appeared on gay Web sites.
Both parents said area schools have since taken a more deliberate approach to monitoring who is allowed to attend and photograph sporting events.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the parents might be able to take legal action against the photographers and Web sites.
"This issue represents just one of a whole range of new issues arising around the use of personal images on the Internet," said Rotenberg. "In some cases, publishers of online information may be immune because of an act of Congress. Internet publishers are given broader protections than other forms of media, but that doesn't mean the parents don't have a case.
"If the pictures appear alongside other more explicit images, it might be an example of a false light privacy tort, which occurs when publishing a true fact but in a context that allows people to draw a wrong conclusion," he added. "If that's the case, there may be a basis for the parents to bring an action."
In the meantime, La Donna Verloop and other parents have taken it upon themselves to monitor pools and ensure that only credentialed photographers snap pictures of their children.
"The schools have added a security guard and set up changing tents on the pool deck, but I took it upon myself to make sure the kids were protected," Verloop said. "I travel with my son's team everywhere they go, and I search every nook where someone might be hiding with a camera."