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Video: Hope Witsell, 13, took her own life

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    >>> this.

    >>> and now to the tragic death of hope witsell, an eighth grader in florida. she took her own life after enduring months of painful taunts and teases over a partially nude photo she texted to a boy. hope's death is just the second teen suicide in the nation that we know about that's linked to sexting-related bullying. we're going to talk to her mother in a moment, but first, nbc's michelle kosinski has the details. and we should warn you, the story does contain some coarse language. michelle , good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, meredith. you know, it hits you out here -- this is a middle school and this was a child whose friends say she could no longer handle the bullying after having sexualitied another child. this is a 13-year-old who ended up hanging herself from her bed.

    >> people that, like, barely even knew her talked about her and laughed when she walked by.

    >> reporter: they are eighth graders, and hope witsell was a good girl, they say, passionate mostly about farming, but also about a certain boy she liked, and hope told them she had made a mistake, had sexted him, sent a topless photo of herself to his cell phone , a photo soon intercepted and forwarded to the masses, even other schools. and then came the taunting.

    >> torturous, cruel.

    >> reporter: that tested every fiber of this self-conscious middle schooler's being.

    >> she took it. she took the pain.

    >> reporter: these girls say hope could not walk alone in the hallways, that the brutal name-calling -- slut and whore -- continued into the next school year.

    >> we asked if she wanted to switch schools and she said, no, i'm going to show them that they can't get to me.

    >> reporter: there were signs, though, that hope blamed herself. the day before her death, a school counselor noticed cuts on her leg and had her sign a contract promising not to harm herself, information that never got to her parents. the following night, her mom went to tuck her in.

    >> it was as if she was standing right there in front of me. and her head was hanging down. and i said, "hope, what are you doing?" and then i realized there was a scarf around her neck.

    >> reporter: earlier this year, ohio high school senior jessie logan took her own life in the same way after sexted photos of her from an ex-boyfriend went viral. polls have shown that about a fifth of u.s. teenagers have sent racy pictures of themselves, leading in many cases to an instant consequence, bullying.

    >> more and more people hear about it, more and more people -- like a target -- more people throw it at you.

    >> reporter: feelings that hope shared only with her diary.

    >> some of hope's words were, "please don't let them remember me by the mistakes that i made. please, please make sure they remember me for who i was."

    >> reporter: you know, you put a name on it, like sexting, and it sounds almost like a game, but psychologists say kids at this age have no idea the consequences or how serious something like this could be. there have even been children arrested in this country for doing this because they don't realize that sending pictures like this could constitute disseminating child pornography . meredith?

    >> michelle kosinski , thank you. we should note that the "st. petersburg times" broke this story. hope's mother, donna witsell, is with us exclusively along with internet safety expert parry aftab . good morning to both of you.

    >> good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> donna, we are so sorry about your loss. everything i've read and heard about your daughter hope suggests to me, quite clearly, that she was a great kid, good student, went to church with the family.

    >> she was gorgeous.

    >> had a lot of friends, all of the above. 13 years old. had sexting ever been discussed between you and your daughter? had the topic ever come up?

    >> sexting, the word, no, but you know, she absolutely knew, you know -- we don't have nude pictures around in our house. we don't -- it's not something that's approved of, no, you know? she -- we, as far as training them on the internet and what to look at and what not to look at, yes, you know. yes, we talked about it.

    >> and then, as it turns out, she did sext a boy that she liked, and then this picture, like michelle said, got disseminated through the school, middle and upper school . she suffered a lot of teasing. did she tell you or your husband about the taunts?

    >> absolutely not, through the most -- only until the end. and it was actually only one episode, which was the wednesday before september 12th .

    >> so, in the spring when it first started, she didn't tell you anything. the school actually alerted you. they found out about the picture. you did what you thought was the right thing, you punished your daughter. you took away her computer, you took away her phone for a while, practiced a bit of tough love. do you think that would be the end of it, then, that she would be okay?

    >> yeah. as far as, you know, she received her punishment for -- her consequence for a mistake that she made. you set rules and boundaries in the household, and you know, your child doesn't take out the trash, you know, or breaks a rule, you ground them, you punish them, you let it go. you love them, you know? you may talk with them. something as serious as this you don't let go. 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.

    >> and yet, this was eating away at her, parry, and this is the second time we've heard of something like this, as michelle pointed out. what is the message here?

    >> well, i think the message is, this could happen to any kid. good kids are the ones it's happening to. jessie was a great kid, and that was about a year ago, and we have hope. good kids. and they're the ones who are committing suicide when a picture like this gets out. more kids are doing more than any of us understand, far more than the 20% we're seeing. you'll hear new numbers about that coming out tomorrow.

    >> and there are no laws regarding sexting at this point.

    >> the laws are if you have it, if you take it, if you send it, it's child pornography and you can go to jail as a sex offender .

    >> donna, we appreciate you sharing hope's story with us. hopefully, other people will listen and pay attention. this is not child's play.

    >> and we want to make sure hope's never remembered for the act, that she's remembered for her heart.

    >> absolutely.

    >> donna witsell, thank you, again, so much, and parry aftab as well.

    >> thank you.

    >> we'll be right back.

    >>> just ahead, meredith baxter makes a personal revelation.

By
TODAY contributor
updated 12/2/2009 10:26:16 AM ET 2009-12-02T15:26:16

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.

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.

TODAY
Hope Witsell had dreams of becoming a landscaper one day.

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.

Mounting pressure
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.

TODAY
The Witsells claim that school officials never informed them their daughter signed a "no-harm contract."

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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