On a Failure of School Officials

Circulating around the Internet is this tragic tale of 13-year-old Hope Witsell, who killed herself after several months of severe harassment by her fellow students. Her ‘crime’? An admittedly unwise decision to photograph her bare breasts and send the picture to the cellphone of a boy she hoped to impress. The move touched off a terrible storm as the picture was quickly recirculated throughout the school, to the poor girl’s total and complete humiliation.

The media has been focusing primarily on the technological aspect of the story: the fact that ‘sexting’ is a new and disturbing trend among between teenagers and children as young as twelve, who are far more adept and tech savvy (and equipped with cellphones) than their parents could have imagined back in the day. And while this is a disturbing trend that any parent should be aware of, I fear the media response does the story a disservice. It fails to ask a number of questions about who, really, was responsible for the conditions that led Hope Witsell to decide to take her life.

What gets me most about this story is how much the school administration participated in making Hope Witsell’s life so unbearable. When she was being harassed by her schoolmates, when she was receiving phone calls by other students demanding more nude photos, school officials did nothing to try and stem the tide. No. Indeed, the seemed far more interested in punishing her than in punishing those other students who circulated what was essentially child pornography, a circulation which was certainly done without her consent. Her parents were notified and, for whatever reason, they decided to ground her for the summer. The school suspended her for a week, and she lost her position as a student advisor.

You would think that, at some point, some teacher or school official somewhere would have the compassion to say that this girl had been punished enough for her mistake and try to stop the feeding frenzy. Instead, school officials were so incompetent, they failed to notify Hope’s parents that she had started to cut herself, and was showing disturbing tendencies towards self-harm and suicide. That alone is probably worth a serious lawsuit and a major round of firings. No action appears to have been taken against the bullies that attacked her. Indeed, as this blog notes, too many other interests, including the news media, have fallen into the trap of blaming Hope Witsell for her victimization.

At the same time, friends say, Hope knew that the biggest mistakes made were her own.

“She didn’t blame it on anybody,” said Rebecca Knowles, 14. “She realized it was her fault for sending them in the first place.

…Even after she died because she couldn’t cope anymore, the newspaper is sitting there telling her that she was the one to blame. Hope didn’t believe that she made the biggest mistakes. She didn’t think it. Apparently, she knew it, because who could ever question the idea that if you send a nude photograph of yourself to another person, you’re obviously a slutty slutty slut slut who deserves whatever is coming to you?

There are terrible oddities in the laws regarding sexual consent in the United States. It is possible for two underage teenagers engaging in sexual experimentation to be charged with the statutory rape of each other. And I suspect that the decision of school officials to come down so hard on Hope is to be viewed in the context of a legal system that can and has charged kids aged fifteen for the production of child pornography — simply because they happened to take a photograph of themselves in the nude. This culture of punishment appears to make no allowance for a situation where a young man or woman has become a victim of their own mistake. No, instead, they pile on that victimization by treating them like a perpetrator.

There can be no doubt that Hope made a mistake, but it was one mistake, and she did not deserve to die for it. Everything else that followed: from the students who recirculated the photograph after they received it, to the school administration that decided that Hope deserved suspension, while letting the bullies get off scott free, was the decision of other people. In my opinion, they contributed to Hope’s suicide, and they deserve to be held accountable for it.

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