13-year-old Hope Witsell is one of a growing number of cell-phone equipped young teenagers who made a snap decision to send racy pictures to a crush via her cell phone.
But the recipient of Witsell’s “sexting” affections, in an outcome that isn’t uncommon, left his phone unattended- allowing a romantic rival of the girl to forward the images to other boys at Shields Middle and Lennard High Schools in Ruskin, Florida. School officials learned of the photo, which had gone viral, and suspended Witsell for the first week of eighth grade classes in August. When Witsell returned, she required a “security detail” of her girlfriends to shield her from sexual taunts and bullying.
Two weeks after Witsell returned and while she was being sexually harassed, a school counselor noticed marks on the young girl’s legs. Rather than actually doing something about the bullying, the counselor made Witsell sign “a ‘no-harm’ contract, in which Hope agreed to tell an adult if she felt inclined to hurt herself.” Apparently, signing a contract did not alleviate the girl’s suffering, because her parents found her hanging in her bedroom the following day. Hope Witsell was 13 at the time of her death.
While the case is the nation’s second known “sexting” related suicide, women have been driven to violent acts of self-harm due to sexual shame since time immemorial. Further ostracization by school officials (Witsell was banned from running for school offices) and failure to disclose the “no-harm contract” to Witsell’s parents seem to have been significant factors in the young woman’s death. School officials and Witsell’s parents appear to disagree on whether the events leading up to Hope’s suicide were correctly handled:
“If it’s felt that students are at risk for harming themselves, there is a followup with parents,” said Tracy Schatzberg, the psychological services supervisor for Hillsborough schools. “We would involve parents depending on the level of risk.”
Said Donna Witsell: “They dropped the ball big time.”
While cell phones are the medium of this particular moral panic, the fact remains that girls and young women have always faced this particular social stigma. Cases like that of Hope Witsell only serve to remind parents and school officials that the real issue is sexual harassment, not technology.