Hope Witsell: Revictimized Into Suicide
What people should recognise is that this (via Jessica’s link roundup at feministing) is not “just” a case where slut-shaming a teen for sexting pushed her into suicide — which has happened before, as I’ve discussed in prior posts on sexting.
This is a case of a teen who was sexually assaulted, and then slut-shamed by the school and her parents, and repeatedly treated as though she had committed some sin or act of misconduct. In fact that’s not what happened.
Here’s what happened:
Hope would, however, be allowed to attend the annual [Future Farmers of America] convention in Orlando …
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.
Hope had already sent a suggestive photo of herself to a boy she liked, who showed it to others. She was punished by the school and her parents, but she had moved on. Then, she was terrorized by older teen boys into taking a photo of her breasts. The story is very clear here: this was not consensual. They scared her into doing it.
So how did the responsible adults react to a girl who had been stalked and terrorized into showing an older boy her breasts? Her parents grounded her and sent her to a Christian counselor. The school barred her from a role as an FFA adviser, taking from her one of the most positive and productive things in her life. She even blamed herself:
“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!”
Parents and educators need to know this: she did not make a mistake or a stupid choice. She was the victim of sexual assault. If a boy scares a girl into sexual conduct, whether it’s a photograph, a blowjob or intercourse, her conduct is not consensual and she needs to be treated as a victim, not a perpetrator.
It is a nearly inescapable conclusion that the sexual assault and her revictimization worked in tandem with the slut-shaming from the prior incident to lead to the precipitating set of circumstances:
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 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.
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.
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.
If she were not dead I’d be harder on Hope Witsell’s parents. Treating a child who has been assaulted as though she did something wrong is such a bad mistake that … well, it’s a cliche to say that mistakes can ruin a child’s life, but it’s literally true of that one. Failure to tell a daughter who has been sexually assaulted that she did nothing wrong and shouldn’t blame herself is as serious a mistake as handing her the keys to a car with no brake fluid. But they must have realized this. They must be going over and over and over all the things they did wrong, and they will be in terrible pain over this forever, so that’s all I’m going to say about them.
The school is in turtle mode. They have liability exposure. They will get their asses handed to them for not telling the parents that she was self-injuring and at risk for suicide. They should get their asses handed to them for not taking meaningful steps to protect Hope from the coordinated, sexualized taunting … but then I never expect schools to actually try to prevent bullying of any kind. That’s a longer, more involved discussion.
The people who knew Hope Witsell will mourn her for a long time to come. For the rest of us, this is a reminder of the cost of revictimizing the victims.