Andrew Meacham in the Tampa Bay Times article, “Sexting-related bullying cited in Hillsborough teen’s suicide,” reports on the suicide of Hope Witsell.  Witsell’s death follows the sexting-triggered suicide of Jessica Logan who was taunted, harassed, bullied and abused for similar reasons.

Of course, ultimately the choice was Hope Witsell’s, but the principals and district administrators at Beth Shields Middle School and at Lennard High School took the wrong approach.

According to the article, 13 year-old Hope sent a photo of her breasts to a boy she liked.  Bad choice.  A rival girl saw the photo on the boy’s phone and forwarded it to other students.  The photo went viral.  Like piranhas, mean girls and vicious boys at the schools joined the general feeding frenzy.  Hope was accosted as a “whore” and harassed for more nude photos at her school and also at a Future Farmers of America Conference.

Let’s focus on only three aspects of this terrible situation:

  1. The school principals and teachers who didn’t stop the frenzy.
  2. The mean girl who first forwarded the photo, the other vicious kids who passed it on and the predators and bullies who attacked a wounded target.
  3. Hope’s self-bullying.

The middle school has a policy against sexting and disciplined Hope: Suspension and loss of honors and privileges.  But, even though the principal and teachers were aware of the taunting, harassment and bullying, there is no report that they did anything to the predators – No all-school meetings about how wrong the behavior is; no follow-up with the police to see who was illegally forwarding the nude photos; no action in the cafeteria when Hope was being harassed by other students.  Even though they knew what was happening, there was no extra vigilance to protect Hope from the attacks.

They did follow up with Hope’s parents to explain their punishment of her, but they took no action to stop the mean girls and vicious boys.  Also, they never called Hope’s parents when they found out that she was cutting herself.

There’s no much you can do once a feeding frenzy has started, but the legitimate authorities at school and the police can be talking to the kids and their parents.  You must make an attempt to rally parents and students to stop the attacks, even though you think Hope was a dope.

Hope’s diary and conversations with her friends were full of self-bullying.  This negative, critical self talk destroys self-esteem and self-confidence.  Self-bullying makes any kind of setback or embarrassment into a humiliating catastrophe that seems to destroy the child’s life forever.  Looked at through self-bullying eyes, the future will seem hopeless, the person helpless to redeem herself.  As Hope wrote, “Secretly TONS of people hate me.”  That’s the wrong conclusion to draw.

Obviously, there are many places Hope’s parents could have intervened had they known how serious the situation was.  But I think the first one is here: Parenting bully-proof kids begins with helping them stop self-bullying, with helping them build strength, courage, resilience and determination in the face of humiliation, disaster or abuse.

Laws are good, but they’re not aren’t enough to stop foolish girls from sexting.  Laws against forwarding pornographic pictures are good, but aren’t enough to stop people from distributing them.  It takes a concerted effort by adults to set the tone; to create an atmosphere in which all students and parents are aware of the stupidity involved and the harm that can be caused.

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Resource Cited: http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/sexting-related-bullying-cited-in-hillsborough-teens-suicide/1054895

Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking.  To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).

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