Hope Witsell was just beginning the journey from child to teen. The middle-school student had a tight-knit group of friends, the requisite poster of “Twilight” heartthrob Robert Pattinson and big plans to become a landscaper when she grew up.
But one impetuous move robbed Hope of her childhood, and eventually, her life. The 13-year-old Florida girl sent a topless photo of herself to a boy in hope of gaining his attention. Instead, she got the attention of her school, as well as the high school nearby.
The incessant bullying by classmates that followed when the photo spread put an emotional weight upon Hope that she ultimately could not bear.
Hope Witsell hanged herself in her bedroom 11 weeks ago.
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Her death is only the second known case of a suicide linked to bullying after “sexting” — the practice of transmitting sexual messages or images electronically. In March, 18-year-old Jesse Logan killed herself in the face of a barrage of taunts when an ex-boyfriend forwarded explicit photos of her following their split.
Hope Witsell’s grieving mother, Donna Witsell, is now coming forward to offer a cautionary story in hope of sparing others the loss she endures. Appearing on TODAY Wednesday with attorney Parry Aftab, a leading Internet safety expert, Witsell told Meredith Vieira how her daughter’s life, once so promising, unraveled after one mistake. Video: ‘Sexting’ leads teen to suicide
The Witsells, from the small rural suburb of Sundance, Fla., are a churchgoing family. Donna admitted to Vieira she knew little to nothing about “sexting” before her daughter’s drama, but she and her husband, Charlie, tried to teach Hope and Donna’s three children from previous relationships right from wrong in the cyberworld.
“As far as training them on the Internet and what to look at and what not to look at, yeah, we talked about it,” Witsell told Vieira.
But Hope got involved in a dangerous, all-too-typical teen game. In June, at the end of her seventh-grade year at Beth Shields Middle School, she sent a picture of her exposed breasts to a boy she liked. It’s an act that is becoming more and more commonplace among teens (a poll recently showed some 20 percent of teens admitting they’ve sent nude pictures of themselves over cell phones).
But a third party intercepted the photo while using the boy’s cell phone, and soon, not only had many of the school's students gawked at the picture, but students at the local high school and even neighboring schools were ogling it.
While Hope’s photo spread, her friends rallied around her in the midst of incessant taunting and vulgar remarks thrown Hope’s way. Friends told the St. Petersburg Times, which originally chronicled Hope’s story, that they literally surrounded Hope as she walked the hallways while other students shouted “whore” and “slut” at her.
“The hallways were not fun at that time — she’d walk into class and somebody would say, ‘Oh, here comes the slut,’ ” Hope’s friend, Lane James, told the newspaper.
Clearly, the taunts were getting to Hope. In a journal entry discovered after her death, Hope 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. So secretly, TONS of people hate me.”
Shortly after the school year ended, school officials caught wind of the hubbub surrounding Hope’s cell phone photo. They contacted the Witsells and told them Hope would be suspended for the first week of the next school year.
Donna Witsell told Vieira that she and her husband practiced tough love on Hope, grounding her for the summer and suspending her cell phone and computer privileges.
Choking up with tears, Witsell told Vieira, “She received her punishment for a mistake she’d made. You set rules and boundaries in the household ... You punish them and then you let it go. You love them. You continue to talk with them, you continue to try to keep that line of communication open, but most of all you continue to love them. You don’t shame them.”
Still, Hope had a very trying summer. A student adviser for the local Future Farmers of America chapter, Hope was allowed by her parents to attend the FFA convention in Orlando. But in a display of just how prevalent teen pressure is when it comes to “sexting,” Hope gave in to incessant badgering from a group of boys staying across from Hope and her friend in a hotel room to provide them with a picture of her breasts.
The downward spiral of Hope’s life was unstoppable. When she returned to school this fall after serving her suspension, the school informed her she could no longer serve as a student adviser to the FFA. She finally admitted to her parents the abuse she was taking.
On Sept. 11, Hope met with school counselors, who noticed cuts on Hope’s leg they believed to be self-inflicted. They had her sign a “no-harm contract,” in which she promised to talk to an adult if she felt the urge to hurt herself. But, attorney Aftab told TODAY, the school didn’t inform Hope’s parents of the contract. “In this case, the school blew it,” Aftab said. “They never told the parents how at risk she was.”
The following day, Hope wrote in her journal: “I’m done for sure now. I can feel it in my stomach. I’m going to try and strangle myself. I hope it works.”
Donna Witsell went to Hope’s bedroom to give her a kiss goodnight. She was met with the most horrifying scene any parent could face.
“It was as if she was standing right there in front of me,” Witsell told NBC News. “Her head was hanging down. I said, ‘Hope, what are you doing?’ And then I realized there was a scarf around her neck.”
Hope had knotted one end of a pink scarf around the canopy of her bed and the other around her neck. She was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Attorney Aftab is at the forefront of highlighting the very real dangers of “sexting” among the teen set. And even though Hope was incredibly young for sexual behavior, a Harris Poll shows up to 9 percent of 13-year-old girls admit they have sent nude pictures of themselves on cell phones.
Aftab, who held Donna Witsell’s hand throughout the trying TODAY interview, told Vieira it’s often upstanding children growing up in good homes who have the biggest propensity to feel guilt over their sexual actions, and most feel the stings of the bullying that comes afterward.
“Good kids are the ones this is happening to; Jesse was a great kid, and now we have Hope,” she said. “Good kids; they’re the ones who are committing suicide when a picture like this gets out.”
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