TAMPA — The parents of a girl who died by suicide in 2009 have filed a federal lawsuit against the Hillsborough School Board, claiming school officials failed to take proper steps after learning their daughter showed signs of being suicidal.
Hope Witsell was 13 when she hanged herself in her bedroom on Sept. 12, 2009.
Prior to her death, the teen had sent a topless photo of herself over her phone to a boy she liked — something called "sexting" — that spread throughout the school community. Witsell was picked on and bullied for months afterward.
The day before she died, Witsell met with a social worker at Beth Shields Middle School who had her sign a contract promising not to end her life, the lawsuit states. School officials never notified Witsell's parents, Donna and Charles Witsell, that the teen was suicidal, the suit states.
The parents said they found the contract in her bedroom after her death.
Witsell's death and its connection to sexting and bullying was the subject of a lengthy story that ran Nov. 29, 2009, in the St. Petersburg Times.
Linda Cobbe, a spokeswoman for the school district, said the district would not comment on pending litigation.
Appearing numerous times in the lawsuit is the role played by Jodi Orlando, the social worker who met with Witsell.
The teen was sent to see Orlando after another staff member saw shallow cuts on her legs and became concerned. The Witsells claim Orlando failed to consult the school psychologist, its principal or its resource officer. They say Orlando allowed Witsell go home with a "formal contract in which she expressly agreed not to commit suicide," the suit states.
Orlando never notified Witsell's parents about her concerns, the suit states.
"Orlando squandered the trust, confidence and critical knowledge bestowed exclusively upon her," the lawsuit states.
At home, Witsell didn't give off a hint that anything was amiss — as was her style, her parents say.
Yet as her parents were downstairs watching television that night, Witsell wrote in her diary: "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."
Then she hanged herself by her bedpost with a pink scarf.
Witsell, who got A's and B's in school, hoped to study agriculture at the University of Florida.
After the sexting incident, the school faculty had stripped her of her FFA student adviser position and suspended her for a few days. Her parents also took away her cell phone and computer.
Donna Witsell said she is campaigning to put some teeth into schools' antibullying policies, which she considers soft.
"When you take your children and put them on a school bus … are you sending them to another country? No, we are not," she said. "We are sending them to accountable, responsible human beings who had accepted the responsibility of caring for our kids while they are on the school grounds."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]