Many parents feel that bullying is part of life for most children; that they must go through it in order to be able to deal with life. Parents do not always understand how difficult bullying can, and most oftentimes is for young children. Too many parents, such as Donna and Charlie Witsell, find out too late about the extent of bullying that Hope Witsell was been subjected to.
Saturday, September 12, 2009 is a day that the parents of Hope Witsell will never forget. The day seemed to be a normal day; Hope helped her father with the lawn work that day. Together, the family made a seafood dinner and ate together. When the clean-up was finished, Hope went to her room and her parents made themselves comfortable to watch a program on TV. When Donna Witsell was on her way to bed, she stopped to kiss her daughter good-night. It was too late; Donna and Charlie’s 13 year old daughter had taken her favorite scarves and hung herself from her canopy on her bed.
Hope’s parents, like most parents, sat with and talked to their daughter about the dangers of the Internet, and what types of things could happen to children and teenagers if they were not careful and watchful of their own actions. Hope acknowledged that she understood. Then the school had called and arranged a meeting with the Witsells. The Principal had informed them that although he had not seen the photo, he learned that it was Hope that had been the subject of a photo sent via text to her boyfriend. This had been meant as a private picture to her boyfriend from Hope. Another girl had gotten hold of this photo and posted it on the Internet. Hope had tried to stop it, but it was too late.
Life, for Hope had started to go downhill. She became the subject of heckling and taunting. She was being bullied by many kids at the school. It had gotten to the point where Hope did not want to walk alone at any time in school. Her friends would rally around her and make a circle around her to protect her from the bullies that would hit, push or prod her. Her friends also tried to shield her from the negative comments being spoken to her, the teasing and the nasty name calling. The bullies ranged in age from 11-13 year olds. As a lesson for us parents, the bullies do not have to be older, they are not necessarily young adults; these bullies attacking Hope verbally and physically were also younger than her.
There had been a meeting with the Principal and Hope, also a meeting with the school counselor and Hope. The school counselor had Hope sign a ‘contract’ with her stating that she would do no harm to herself, but instead would speak to a trusted adult, if she had thoughts of hurting herself. These contracts go by many names and are used in many places such as schools, churches, youth groups and families.
- No Suicide Contracts, Agreements, Promises or Commitments
- No Harm Contracts, Agreements, Promises or Commitments
These are considered to be helpful aids when speaking with students and children. Along with talking and reassuring these children that they will be heard when they go to a trusted adult to talk about problems, these contracts serve as the mindset that suicide is never okay. These contracts list names and phone numbers of people that can be called, who will help and listen to the child. Although they are not legal documents, the mindset is that the youth will follow, as though it is legal. The children form an understanding that they are never alone in their problems, that there are adults and people there to help them.
All adults, counselors, teachers, parents and any other adult must understand that the contract is not total prevention. It is not meant to be used in place of counseling or necessary treatment of any youth. We must also remember that no one can be forced into signing the contract or agreement. This contract will also not prevent any clinician from being held liable for any self-inflicted harm done by the youth. Counseling and treatment must still take place if warranted.
Hope Witsell was like most children her age. She did well in school, she had friends and she had a boyfriend. Her parents talked to her about the ramifications of what can happen when using technology today. She had spoken with the school Principal and also the school counselor. So where did the adults miss the signs? Hope Witsell’s parents did not know that Hope had spoken with the Counselor, there had been no phone call from the counselor to any of the phones or emails of Donna or Charlie Witsell, and no messages or emails sent to the parents.
The classmates and school mates started bullying after Hope Witsell had sent an inappropriate picture of herself to her boyfriend. This picture ended up in the access of a bully who posted it online. Hope Witsell became the subject of taunting, harassment and even a page on a popular website. The page was called “Hope Hater Page”. Hope kept silent, she did not speak of any harassment or bullying by other kids, when confronted by the Principal or the Counselor. She did not share any of the pain she was experiencing with her parents. Her friends knew, but they did not tell any other adults either. Hope Witsell’s mother found the signed contract, made with the Counselor, crumpled into a ball and in Hope’s bedroom trash can, after Hope had died. Hope’s sister has discovered that the harassment and bullying has continued, even after Hope’s death. There are rude, bullying comments continuously posted on the MySpace page. The ones responsible for the bullying, they have not stopped. Bullies do not stop without some sort of interference on the part of adults. There must be counseling and sessions to make all children aware of the harm that bullying can cause.
As an eighth grade student, Hope Witsell was subjected to months of bullying, both in person and using online technology. The cyber-bullies were horrendous, they never let up. Hope endured the taunts and harassment, physically, mentally and emotionally; without letting her parents know what was happening. She endured the pain, the humiliation not just from her middle school, but also from bullies in the nearby high school. It became too much too handle for the student in September of 2009. All the dreams she had for her own life were not enough to overcome the agony she felt inside. Those dreams could not sustain her mentally, in order to get through the torture she felt. One mistake that she made ruined her life and she felt the only way out was to end her life.
As adults and parents to children, we need to combat the bullying in every way possible. We need to have total open communication with our children, even at times that it may upset them. When a parent or adult close to the child notices anything odd or different about the child, we must speak up. We must talk to the child and let them know that there is help out there, and that we are willing to listen. We must teach them that talking about troubles, about the mistakes that are seemingly innocently made are just that. We must show them an unending support system, so that they know they have trusted people to turn to in times of need.
There needs to be a show of support against bullying. When schools, groups or families find out that a child is being bullied, we must make it known that that behavior will not be allowed or tolerated. Routine lectures at schools, church groups, or other functions for both youth and adults need to be initiated and conducted to teach everyone about the effects of bullying. Also, role playing activities to teach the youth what bullying feels like can be conducted.
For Hope Witsell, it is too late. Her family and friends now have to go through life without the smiling face of a bright 13 year old young lady. Hope Witsell’s mother Donna has come forward to share her story, and warn other parents how horrific bullying can be. She is telling others that this scenario can happen to other parents, as easily as it happened to her family. She strives to tell other parents that they must communicate with their children, even more so if something seems odd or different about the child.
A personal journal found after Hope Witsell’s suicide describes just how horrific she felt when the bullying continued. On September 11, 2009 Hope wrote, “I’m done for sure now. I can feel it in my stomach. I’m going to try to strangle myself and I hope it works.” The following day Hope succumbed to the bullying and the harassment.
Hope Witsell’s mother struggles to inform others that even in good homes, like her family and others, this bullying continues to happen. A parent needs to talk and keep open communications with their children. A parent’s lectures do not stop mistakes, but teaching our children that there is help, that people will listen is the way to teach the bullying victims. They also caution that any family can be affected, well off or even hard pressed families can end up in the same situation.
There is pending litigation against the school district that Hope Witsell attended. The parents cite negligence for not contacting them about signs that Hope had been hurting herself, and not informing them of the No Suicide contract.