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.