RIVERVIEW — Donna Witsell spends hours gathering her research and making note cards. But when she stands before a crowd of students, she sets that all aside and lets God speak through her.
Her message is one of light and truth. Her story is the life of her daughter, Hope, an outgoing 13-year-old who killed herself four years ago after suffering from months of bullying.
The young teen was tormented at school after sending a nude photo of herself to a boy. It eventually spread around Beth Shields Middle School in Ruskin and beyond.
Students shoved Hope, called her names and even spat on her. When the bullying intensified, her friends escorted her down the hallway acting as shields against the abuse. When she walked into class, other students called her "whore" and "slut."
"It was just brutal, dangerous and hateful," Witsell said. "Most of my energy and time now is pretty much devoted to helping as many people and kids as I can."
In February, Witsell resigned her job at the post office and dedicated her life full-time to Warriors for Hope Outreach Ministries, a group designed to encourage and empower girls in grades 6 to 12. She started speaking in the spring to local schools, youth groups and at Springfield College.
She only goes to schools that have invited her, which has not included any Hillsborough County public schools, who she said are "hesitant about discussing suicide." Witsell and her husband twice sued the school district, once in a federal case and another in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court. Both were dismissed.
Warriors for Hope started as an outlet for Hope's friends to discuss their emotions and sustain a positive outlook after her death. Now, Witsell has partnered with Triangle Resolutions and provides sponsorships for girls to attend a weekly counseling group dedicated to antibullying, self-esteem and character values.
"Every time I see or I hear about another child committing suicide, I scream inside," Witsell said. "I want to know when it is going to stop. People need to get an awareness. They need to see the reality and what these kids are going through."
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Since Hope's death, 25 children 18 and younger have committed suicide in Hillsborough County, according to the county medical examiner. Eight, including Hope, were less than 14 years old. The youngest was 10.
"It got to the point where things were so irreparable that she didn't want to live anymore," said Abby Speicher, a friend of Hope's and a youth group leader at their church, South Bay Church. "That blows my mind. I think for someone to reach the point of feeling irreparable is one of the most dangerous states of mind for any person."
Last week, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick changed her name on a social media outlet to "That Dead Girl" and jumped to her death at an old cement business, according to law enforcement officials. Her family and Polk County deputies blame months of cyberbullying, including messages from students saying "You should die" and "Why don't you go kill yourself."
The Polk County Sheriff's Office said there could be criminal charges if it finds evidence of online stalking.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed suicide as the third-leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14 and people ages 15 to 24 in 2010, the most recent year available.
While there's no way to determine how many suicides directly resulted from bullying, friends and family of Sunlake High freshman Kiefer Allan and Fivay High sophomore Jessica Laney said bullying pushed each of the children to commit suicide, Allan in January 2011 and Laney in December. But authorities found no formal complaints to the Pasco County School District or the Sheriff's Office about either being bullied.
"It's so easy for children to access the Internet, and there's no filter to what they're going to put out or what they're going to say," Speicher said. "I don't think they understand the impact it has on their fellow peers."
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The words "Be the Voice of Hope" and "End Bullycide" fill the rear window of Witsell's Toyota SR5. Witsell is eager to reach out to people any way she can, and believes something as simple as a message on a car can help. One night, when out to dinner with her husband, another couple approached Witsell.
"Are you Hope's mom?" they asked. "She was our daughter's best friend."
"It's amazing how many people approach me after her death and say they were best friends with her," Witsell said. "She was so loved."
But despite all her friends and all their love, Hope was unable to see the light at such a young age, Witsell said.
"It's the severity of the torment," she said. "It's psychologically so damaging to our children. Life's hard enough. We know that as adults, but truly a child's not capable of rationalizing that type of hateful, daily harassment toward them. They don't know how to proceed. They haven't developed that far."
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The Hillsborough County School District lists bullying as a level two offense in the code of student conduct. Consequences include a mandatory parent conference, a verbal and written reprimand, in-school or out-of-school suspension up to 10 days and change of placement and/or expulsion.
The key to countering bullying is a united front from all involved parties, school district director of administration Tanly Cabrera said.
"It's parents, it's school, law enforcement and community," Cabrera said. "Everyone, cooperatively, needs to work together in the prevention of bullying."
The district classifies bullying as a progressive offense, which means it can elevate to a level one offensive if the behavior grows severe or is ongoing, school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.
The student handbook encourages students to report all incidents of bullying behavior, which it defines as "systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students or employees." Types of bullying include verbal, physical, emotional, sexual and cyberbullying.
"The bottom line is, everything happening at our school sites that is effecting our boys and girls, we're going to address it," Cabrera said. "Telling students, 'Oh, just ignore them,' those days are gone. We take every single report that comes our way, we have to investigate it."
The handbook tells victims of bullying to clearly tell the bully to stop, immediately report the incident, make a written record and avoid being alone with the person.
Speicher said teachers and staff members need to be aware of what's going on in the schools and really engage with the students.
"The schools, even the teachers, are so oblivious to what's going on," Speicher said. "The teachers are there to give support to the students. It's something that's part of their responsibility, to watch the students on the campus."
But students also need to take responsibility and be comfortable enough to talk to the staff, she said.
"It starts with students willing to take a stand in schools and say, 'That's not right,' " Speicher said.
Taking a stand isn't easy. Amber Pena, 18, had been friends with Hope since first grade. Looking back, she said she has shame and regret for not doing more to help Hope.
"I had so-called 'friends' who were part of Hope's 'bullying committee,' " Pena said. "They would trash talk her just as much as everyone else, and I would just stand there silent not saying anything. If I would have listened to my conscience while it was telling me 'Say something, anything. You know how she feels,' maybe I could have became closer with her and helped her through it."
Pena still runs through the "what if's" in her mind. She can't change what happened with Hope, but she now tries to help kids who have been, or are being, bullied.
"As the years have passed, I've taken a stand and I will not, under any circumstance, put up with any form of bullying," Pena said. "I am not just a bystander anymore."
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Her eyes were closed as she recited the Bible verse:
"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit," Witsell said as her fingers idly played with the strings from a prayer shawl.
This verse is woven through Witsell's life. It's the reason she and her husband chose Hope's name. And it's where she turns when she needs motivation to continue her work with Warriors for Hope Outreach Mission.
Witsell reminds herself that she doesn't have to save the world. Even providing support for just one child could save a life.
"That's pretty much my mission since we lost our daughter," Witsell said. "If it's just one more, if everybody would work at it that way, we could make a difference."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.