Life · Politics

Sexting suicide and school discipline policies

Horrific news from my peeps on the Education Writers Association listserve about a 13-year-old who killed herself in September after bullying related to a “sexting” incident. EWA passed the St. Petersburg Times story byAndrew Meacham that details the chain of events from the moment in June that young Hope Witsell decided to send a cell phone photo of her breasts to Alex Eargood, a boy she liked.  Another girl borrowed Alex’s phone, saw the photo, and forwarded it to friends. (How sweet.) Within hours, the photo had “gone viral” at the middle school Hope attended and a nearby high school. Hope couldn’t walk into classes or down the hall of her school without being called a slut or a whore. In her journal, found after her death, she wrote

“Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore! … And I can’t be a whore i’m too inexperienced.”

First, props to Meacham for the exhaustive reporting in this heartbreaking story and to the Times for running something longer than 20 inches. Second, let us consider a minute the backwards nature of school discipline, something I’m getting more familiar with in my teacher preparation classes and which, IMHO, is demonstrated in a deadly manner in the Hope Witsell case.

You see, teacher education programs focus on the importance of teaching students critical thinking skills, yet all too often school-wide discipline policies (and classroom discipline policies) show a dismal lack of the same, focusing instead on punishment with no creative problem solving. Schools live and die in the black and white. From Meacham’s story:

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. 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.

OK, so, note that no one else seems to get nailed for this event – not the girl who forwarded the photo, not the mobs that passed it on nor the hordes that tormented her. It could have happened, but Meacham doesn’t report it and the story is so detailed I doubt he would have left that out. So a 13-year-old does something stupidly wrong and admitted as much to her friends. She never blamed anyone but herself for sending the photo. In fact, it looks like she participated in what one bullying expert calls “self-bullying,” magnifying her self-blame. But because the school has a policy (naturally) against “sexting” Hope is the one who is suspended for the first week of school. Finally, and perhaps most horrifically, the school did not notify Hope’s parents when they had her sign the “no harm” contract. Would her parents have been able to save her if they had known? I don’t know – but the school should have called the parents.

Meacham’s reporting reveals little of Hope’s folks except evidence that they gave their daughter privacy and did not, after first finding out about the sexting, turn Hope’s room upside down looking for evidence of depression or self-loathing. When the first counseling effort failed, they just asked Hope if she was OK and, they believed her when she said she was fine because, well, all parents want to believe their kids are OK. But think back to middle school – were you OK? It’s the damn water-torture of adolescence.

Back to the school. Perhaps Meacham didn’t know about anti-bullying efforts at the school, but it isn’t reported and I’m guessing the school did what most do with a major flareup – focus on the “perpetrator” and “punishment.” Even though pre-service teachers are told to teach students critical thinking and creative problem solving, to approach behavior problems as skills to be learned not opportunities to mete out black-and-white punishment. Shouldn’t Hope’s school have looked at the whole child, not one stupid mistake? Shouldn’t administrators have engaged the entire community in this “teachable” moment, not only about bullying, but about the crazy societal messages young boys and girls receive? (As Hope’s mother said, “Have you been reading these teen magazines lately? … ‘How many ways can you turn your boyfriend on? How sexy can you kiss?’ We want to think our child is going to learn and grow and develop the skills to make the right choices. They don’t have a chance in hell. These kids are bombarded.”)

Kids do have a chance in hell, but not if parents and schools don’t fight against a culture that has gone terribly awry. The school didn’t take the teachable moment of sexting and use it to educate. Instead, they took a “no harm” contract and suspension and thought it was good enough. They punished Hope instead of trying to find out why she did what she did. They didn’t “think critically” about what is happening in the society and the school that allowed this bullying and sexting to occur in the first place and they didn’t launch a school-wide creative problem solving/empathy building effort. If they did, Meacham doesn’t report it, but from my observations in schools of late, my money is, sadly, on the fact that they didn’t. I hope, two months after a funeral for a 13-year-old, they are thinking about doing it now.

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16 thoughts on “Sexting suicide and school discipline policies

  1. A very sad story.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m missing your point, because I’m not. I have three children, my youngest will be 17 this Saturday, actually. He doesn’t have a cellphone…never has. Nor is he allowed on the computer unsupervised. I realize technology is what it is, but children can’t have access to it if someone isn’t paying for it. They can’t really conceive an email or cellphone pic will never, ever go away.
    I guess I’m old school, it’s just seems like to much responsibility for little kids.

    1. I feel so sorry for you. Your son is 17 and you hold his hand when he’s on the computer? When he goes off to college or gets in trouble…just know that it’s your fault for sheltering the life out of him.

      1. You’re entitled to your opinion, and he is far from sheltered.

        I feel sorry for you for judging others.

      2. By the way, meaning the computer is in full sight in the main living area. Everyone can see what I’m doing as well.

  2. Liberal activists have watered down the penalties and statutes that relate to indecent exposure, porn, and public nudity to the point many people have become desensitized to seeing female breasts exposed in everything from magazines to movies.  When I was thirteen years old, the culture and traditional value system I was raised in would not have permitted a girl that age to even consider thinking of doing such a thing as sending a picture of her breasts to someone she had a crush on.  As our traditional value system is further eroded and destroyed by liberal activists, expect to see more, not less of this kind of sad thing happen.

    1. Ahh yes – for the good old days of National Geographic.
      Liberal activists have destroyed a fins cultural treasure.

  3. I agree it is pretty much a failure all around – schools are notorious for not being able to deal with bullying, and even for enabling it.
    For instance – is suspending a student for a week for the “crime” of sexting liable to reduce bullying, or encourage it ?
    And the parents were notified, and brought in for a conference, and sent Hope to a “christian therapist”. Always a smart move.
    Hope was a victim of the bullies, but even more of the idiocy and incompetence of both school and parents, and she is far from alone.

    1. I would also add she was a victim of a sexually permissive society,  a society LIBs have been advocates for much more so than conservatives.   That is undeniable.

      1. It certainly is deniable – she pretty much stated herself that she was the victim of a non-permissive school and non-permissive parents, both of whom punished her.

  4. My son was friends with Hope. He was disturbed when he learned of her passing hearing rumors of her suicide. When I saw this article in the local paper, I immediately informed the school that the rumors were now in print and perhaps they should allow discussion regarding three themes that are evided: sexting, bullying and suicide. I was thanked for forwarding the article but told they already had grief counselors following her death (though no one really now how or why she died) and that they would offer counseling for any student seeking further help.
    The school does have problems. My son received threatening phone calls from an unknown student; we reported it to the school’s resource advisor. While she was understanding, she said there was nothing she could do without know who the caller was. Fortunately, nothing happened. My son has ADHD and sometimes goofs off. He has now been the “target” of anything and everything even accused of stealing a soda from the teacher’s stash though I know he brought the soda from home. His guidance counselor moved him away from his friends at the lunch room for misbehaving in science but gave no other information other than he was misbehaving. My son is far from innocent but I believe the school can be heavy-handed on occasion.
    From what my son has told me of Hope she was an extremely bright and caring girl who excelled in school and FFA. She used poor judgment but I think she became “targeted” as a discipline problem.

    1. Wow. So sad for your son and it sounds like the school needs some help. I encourage all parents to advocate for the best in managment practices. Sometimes schools get locked into a certain mindset and it takes parental/advocate pressure to make them see what’s happening.

  5. I have a problem with this i knew hope i went to school with her and i also knew alex and the girl that borrowed his phone, in reality alex had a girlfreind at the time or around the time and of course he would delete the photo but the “Rivial girl” is the one who forewarded the message and her names not in the paper she refused to speak. what does that say. all those who were innocent their names were mentioned

    1. I didn’t know Hope, but I have heard  a lot of good things about her from her friends. I am very sorry for her family’s lost and I send my prayers out to them. I am however very close to Alex and I would like to say thank you Shayla,  for making your statement about how the ones who’s names were printed,  were the only ones who were mentioned. This was the only time I have heard anyone sound like they weren’t blaming just him. Our community is small and it was hard for Alex to remain here after all this happened. He does care a lot for Hope and wishes her family the best.

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