What started with a girl sending a boy she liked a picture of her breasts on her cell phone – a practice widely identified as ‘sexting’ in the media – ended with bullying, the misapplication of punishment and eventually the tragic suicide of a thirteen-year-old child.
The Tampa Bay St. Petersburg Times reported on the story and painted a grim picture of a girl under attack from her peers.
At the end of the school year at Beth Shields Middle School, the taunting became so bad that Hope Witsell’s friends surrounded her between classes. They escorted her down hallways like human shields, fending off insults such as “whore” and “slut.” A few days before, Hope had forwarded a nude photo of herself to a boy she liked — a practice widely known as “sexting.” The image found its way to other students, who forwarded it to their friends. Soon the nude photo was circulating through cell phones at Shields Middle and Lennard High School, according to multiple students at both schools. “Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore!” Hope wrote in her journal. “And I can’t be a whore I’m too inexperienced. So secretly TONS of people hate me… “
The story goes that after sending a picture to a boy, another girl found the picture and forwarded it to others. From there, it circulated through the school. The picture she had taken, and thought – perhaps naively – would not go beyond one person who she wanted to see it was then seen by many, many others, and without her consent.
For this, the student body saw fit to punish this young woman informally, largely through the use of threatening bullying and gender based slurs. But not only that, she was also punished officially by the school.
School authorities learned of the nude photo around the end of the school year and suspended Hope for the first week of eighth grade, which started in August.
The school continued what seems to me to be a mishandling of the girl’s situation when she returned.
About two weeks after she returned to school, a counselor observed cuts on Hope’s legs and had her sign a “no-harm” contract, in which Hope agreed to tell an adult if she felt inclined to hurt herself, her family says. The next day, Hope hanged herself in her bedroom. She was 13.
This has been reported as the second sexting related suicide, but it seems to me that this would be more accurately called one of countless suicides related to bullying. The justification for that bullying may be different, but there is no doubt that this girl was mercilessly harassed, that she was taken advantage of without her consent, and that before her death, authority figures who should have come to her aid only questioned her conduct without protecting her from the grossly inappropriate responses of others.
It is nothing less than heartbreaking that this girl felt that suicide was the only way she could escape an incredible and disproportionate punishment for her inexperience. If you have children or young loved ones, talk to them about sexting. In this space I previously posted some other horrifying stories about the consequences of sexting and a guide on how to talk to your teens about sexting. This conversation may be difficult, but an open and honest conversation about this increasingly prevalent practice now is far preferable to the possible alternatives.