RUSKIN — At the end of the school year at Beth Shields Middle School, the taunting became so bad that Hope Witsell's friends surrounded her between classes. They escorted her down hallways like human shields, fending off insults such as "whore" and "slut." A few days before, Hope had forwarded a nude photo of herself to a boy she liked — a practice widely known as "sexting." The image found its way to other students, who forwarded it to their friends. Soon the nude photo was circulating through cell phones at Shields Middle and Lennard High School, according to multiple students at both schools. "Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore!" Hope wrote in her journal. "And I can't be a whore i'm too inexperienced. So secretly TONS of people hate me … " School authorities learned of the nude photo around the end of the school year and suspended Hope for the first week of eighth grade, which started in August. About two weeks after she returned to school, a counselor observed cuts on Hope's legs and had her sign a "no-harm" contract, in which Hope agreed to tell an adult if she felt inclined to hurt herself, her family says. The next day, Hope hanged herself in her bedroom. She was 13.
Her death is the second in the nation in which a connection between sexting and teen suicide can clearly be drawn.
"This is very important, because it shows that sexting-related suicides are tracking the same way cyberbullying-related suicides are," said Parry Aftab, a nationally known "cyberlawyer" who has appeared on Good Morning America and the Today show.
A 2009 Harris online poll shows that one in five teens admits to having sent naked pictures of themselves or others over a cell phone. But even that number may be low.
Hope grew up in Sundance, an isolated rural suburb 6 miles off U.S. 41 in south Hillsborough County. Her parents, Donna and Charlie Witsell, met in the post office where they both work. They married in 1995. Hope was their only child together. They took her to church every Sunday.
Hope wasn't a troubled girl. She was an "A" and "B" student in all subjects but math. She had many friends, whom she liked to give bear hugs. She often went fishing with her father in her big, white-framed sunglasses. On mornings when she was running late to school, Hope carried her cereal and milk in a coffee cup and ate on the bus.
Hope knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life: attend the University of Florida and major in agriculture. Then she would start a landscaping and nursery business.
Like many other girls her age, she was boy-crazy.
Tacked to her bedroom door beneath a Twilight poster of the vampire Edward Cullen is a piece of notebook paper folded in quarters. It is a note from a boy, one line written in faint pencil:
"U still like me?"
• • •
Accounts vary, but many students describe the chain of events this way: The last week of school in June, Hope forwarded a photo of her breasts to the cell phone of Alex Eargood, a boy she liked. A rival girl, who was the girlfriend of another boy Hope liked and a friend of Alex's, asked to borrow Alex's phone on the bus. That girl found the image and forwarded it to other students.
Alex, now 16 and a freshman at Armwood High School, told the St. Petersburg Times last week that he deleted the photo. He does not remember whether he deleted it before or after the girl borrowed his phone. The mother of the girl told the Times that her daughter would not comment for this article.
Within hours, the image had gone viral at Shields and Lennard High.
"People were getting it at school and sending it at school," said Lane James, 14, a friend of Hope's at Shields Middle. "The hallways were not fun at that time."
Lane, who shared four classes with Hope last year, called the atmosphere around school that week "brutal."
"She'd walk into class and somebody would say, 'Oh, here comes the slut,' " Lane said.
At the same time, friends say, Hope knew that the biggest mistakes made were her own.
"She didn't blame it on anybody," said Rebecca Knowles, 14. "She realized it was her fault for sending them in the first place."
Sexting, defined as the sharing of nude or seminude images over a cell phone or a computer, is growing among teenagers, including young teens. The Harris poll showed that 9 percent of 13-year-olds admitted doing it — even though most teens polled believe it is wrong to send nude photos of minors to others.
Aftab, who in April led a town meeting on teen sexting with Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer, noted that teens who participated in the Harris poll needed their parents' consent. She believes the real number of teen sexters to be much higher.
A poll conducted by her organization, WiredSafety, found that 44 percent of boys in co-ed high schools had seen at least one naked picture of a female classmate. Overwhelmingly, they shared the images with others.
Early adolescents like Hope face the biggest psychological risks, Aftab said. An 11-year-old doesn't have as many hormones, while a 16-year old may have developed enough of a social network to cushion the blow.
"The real risk is the 12- and 13-year age," she said.
The speed of the Internet and the ubiquity of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook make it that much harder to escape the embarrassment. It also means the photos may never go away.
"If they are sexting images that are being made public, they are going to be tagged forever as a slut," Aftab said. "So they don't see a future. And if they don't see a future, they (think they) might as well end their life. We are seeing a lot of that in this age."
The social consequences can be even worse for high-performing teens who consider themselves "good kids," said Yale psychiatrist Robert King.
"There are some kids who are very self-critical and very demanding of themselves, and see any kind of setback or embarrassment as just a humiliating catastrophe," said King, a professor of child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and an expert on teenage suicide. "It sort of sounds like that's the flavor of kid she was."
Those types of kids also are more likely to keep their deepest emotions hidden from their parents, experts say. That was the case with Hope. When she was feeling down, she wrote about it in her journal but did not confide in her parents.
"Hope certainly did not let on that something was wrong," said Charlie Witsell, 46. "She never really said anything to us."
• • •
Two weeks after school let out, the school learned of the nude photo and called Charlie and Donna Witsell for a conference. Officials issued the one-week suspension for the fall.
The Witsells confiscated Hope's cell phone and computer and grounded her for the summer. They were dismayed, but also thought it could be a learning opportunity.
"In a strange way I was glad she got caught, because at least that way we got to see what's going on," Charlie Witsell said.
Hope said she was sorry for her actions, which she could not explain. She vowed to undergo her punishment and start the new school year afresh.
Hope would, however, be allowed to attend the annual FFA convention in Orlando, less than two weeks after the end of the school year. The convention rewards students for their work in statewide agriculture competitions.
An FFA student adviser for her school before the incident, Hope was due to pick up at least two awards: a first-place team award for nursery and landscaping, plus her individual trophy for the highest test score in the state for her age group in that category.
No one knows how Hope met a group of boys staying across the hall. Rebecca Knowles, who is the FFA president, saw Hope talking to the boys by the hotel pool.
The boys were in their late teens and were not there for the FFA convention. They insisted she send a nude photo to them.
One of the boys was especially aggressive and called the room repeatedly on the conference's last night, asking Hope for a photo of her breasts.
"They kept calling and they kept bugging her," said Rebecca, 14, who said she was in the room but asleep. "I think she was just scared. One of our roommates was scared as well and said, 'Oh, my God, just do it.' They were scared and wanted to get it over."
The boy calling didn't have a cell phone. So Hope used Rebecca's phone to take a picture of her breasts, then slipped it outside her door.
The phone, which Hope had left outside for the boy, was still in the hallway when an adult found it and saw the photo.
• • •
After the incident in Orlando, Charlie and Donna Witsell decided to take Hope to a Christian counselor. After the third visit, the counselor told Donna that Hope didn't want to be there. Forcing her to come wouldn't do any good, the counselor said. Reluctantly, Hope's parents agreed.
Just the same, the quiet, introspective summer seemed to be doing Hope some good. The parents made a few exceptions to her grounding — a sleepover with a friend, a family vacation in Sanibel.
Hope fretted that there would be further consequences over her actions in the spring. She especially worried that she might lose a chance to run again for FFA student adviser.
"Making mistakes &/or stupid choices doesn't necessarily make it impossible for you to give advice and lead people in the right direction," she wrote in her journal. "Do you think people ever told Elvis Presley he couldn't lead people to be singers & give them advice because he had made some bad choices with drugs & alcohol? … I don't think so!"
While serving her suspension week at the end of August, Hope and her mother stopped by Shields for a status update. There her mother learned that the school would not allow Hope to run for student adviser that year.
Lane James, who was in the office at the time, remembers seeing Hope after that meeting.
"She was in the corner, just bawling and bawling," Lane said. "She wouldn't talk to anybody."
• • •
About a week after Hope's suspension ended, she and Rebecca found three boys seated at the cafeteria table the girls had always claimed as their own.
The ringleader, Rebecca said, hectored Hope about the photo that had made its way through the school in June. Another boy joined in.
Hope left the table in tears. She spent the rest of the day in the office talking to counselors, her mother said.
Hope stayed home from school the next day. While her parents were at work, she cleaned the house top to bottom.
What happened at school on Friday, Sept. 11, remains an open question. Samantha Beattie, Hope's aunt, gives the following version of events she said Hope gave to her.
Hope met that day with Jodi Orlando, the school's social worker. Another staff member had noticed cuts on Hope's leg and become concerned.
The social worker quizzed Hope, then had her sign a "no-harm" contract in which Hope agreed to talk to an adult if she felt an urge to hurt herself. Both Orlando and Hope signed the undated contract, which her parents found in Hope's bedroom trash can after her death.
Hope's parents say no one from the school called them to say their daughter might harm herself.
The Hillsborough County School District, through spokeswoman Linda Cobbe, declined to comment on Hope Witsell's interaction with school officials or her suicide, saying officials were prohibited by law from discussing student discipline matters.
• • •
Donna and Charlie Witsell both worked Saturday, Sept. 12. Hope stayed home and cut the grass.
On his way home, Charlie stopped by the grocery store for shrimp and crab legs. The family ate seafood that night.
At 8:30 p.m., the phone rang. Hope sprang to answer it. When her parents asked who it was, she answered, "Theresa."
The caller ID, which appeared on the television screen, said "Michael," the name of a 15-year-old boy Hope liked.
Donna heard a boy's voice on the extension. Because she had lied, Hope's parents grounded her from the phone for a week.
At 9:10 p.m., Donna checked on Hope in her room to see if she was all right. She found the girl lying on her bed, writing in her journal. Hope said she was fine.
But Hope was not okay. She wrote in her journal:
Sept. 12, 2009
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.
A few minutes after 10 p.m., Donna checked in again to see if Hope wanted to come downstairs and watch television with them. Hope declined.
About an hour later, Donna eased open Hope's door again to kiss her good night. She saw her daughter standing a few feet away — her head lowered, her hair was hanging over her face.
"Hope, what are you doing?" Donna said.
Then she saw that a pink scarf was knotted around the canopy of her queen-sized bed. The other end was wrapped around Hope's neck.
Downstairs, Charlie was about to let the dog out when he heard Donna's voice.
An ambulance arrived and took Hope to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office ruled Hope's death a suicide. The doctor who examined her body found a "zone of shallow cuts" up to an inch or so long on her right thigh.
• • •
One Hillsborough School District official agreed to speak generally about how schools handle students who may be suicide risks. And that would involve a call to the parents if the threat of suicide seemed real.
"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."
As for sexting, the school district said it routinely presents information to all students about the perils of the practice.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has finished its investigation into Hope's death, but a sheriff's spokesman said they are still at work on another aspect of the case.
"The whole issue of the nude photograph being distributed through cell phones, we're still looking at," said spokesman J.D. Callaway.
Florida law considers the possession or distribution of nude images of minors to be child pornography, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Hope's case is the second known sexting-related suicide in the country. The first received national attention.
Jessie Logan was an attractive high school senior in the Cincinnati area who forwarded nude images of herself to a boyfriend at his request.
After they broke up, the boyfriend forwarded the photos to others. The images spread through her high school. Logan, 18, tried to tackle the issue head-on, going on a television news program and urging other teens not to repeat her mistake.
She found it harder to endure the humiliation of walking the halls at school, where other students called her a "porn queen," dumped drinks on her and threw her out of graduation parties.
Two months later, her mother found her hanging in her bedroom.
• • •
After Hope's death, Charlie and Donna Witsell retraced their steps many times, looking for clues they might have missed.
"Should I have been more careful about what I allowed her to watch?" Donna, 48, said. "Should I have been more careful about what I allowed her to read? Should I have been more careful about restricting her relationships with the opposite sex? There's a fine, fine line, especially when our kids become adolescents. They are maturing way sooner than they used to."
Whenever the Witsells asked Hope how she was feeling after the sexting incident, she always said she was fine. It was only after her death that they found the no-harm contract, deeply despairing diary entries and complex pencil doodlings drawn in class that referred to death and suicide.
The Witsells are coming forward because they feel Hope's sexting incident is a just a symptom of a larger problem: the hyper-sexualization in media aimed at young teens, which they believe forces young minds to contend with ideas of lust and love that they have trouble understanding.
They hope other teens and parents can learn from Hope and avoid the same tragic end.
"Have you been reading these teen magazines lately?" Donna asked. " 'How many ways can you turn your boyfriend on? How sexy can you kiss?' We want to think our child is going to learn and grow and develop the skills to make the right choices. They don't have a chance in hell. These kids are bombarded."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]