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Sexting, Shame and Suicide

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There have been a number of high-profile cases similar to Audrie Pott's across the U.S. and Canada in recent years. Steubenville, Ohio, spent months in the national headlines last summer after two football players raped a drunk high school girl at a party. In Louisville, Kentucky, in 2011, Savannah Dietrich, 16, got drunk, passed out and woke up to later learn two male acquaintances had stripped and sexually abused her, capturing the action on their phones and then sharing the pictures with pals. Savannah gathered evidence and went to the police herself. The boys confessed and were initially granted a plea deal that involved the felony charge being expunged from their records before they turned 20. Savannah went public with their names after that, nearly earning herself a contempt-of-court citation because of the juvenile-court privacy regulations, but ultimately influenced the court to rule for the boys to have a misdemeanor on their records for life. The local DA said that penalty was "the most severe" available in Kentucky juvenile court.

In Nova Scotia, Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, was taken off life support and died this April, three days after her mother discovered her hanging in the bathroom of their Halifax home. According to her mother, the teen got drunk at a party in 2011 and was gang-raped by four boys, who snapped a picture of the scene and posted it online. Her mom said Rehtaeh was mercilessly bullied by classmates for the next two years, even after the family moved to a new town to get her away from the abuse. In early August, Canadian authorities charged two 18-year-old boys with disseminating child pornography.

Diane Rosenfeld, director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School, says such incidents are far more common than just those that wind up in court or involve suicide. Most, she says, don't make the local news or even reach school administrators because the girls are too embarrassed to do anything. Rosenfeld and her students work with girls, sometimes filing civil suits and encouraging them to graduate. Many are too humiliated to stay in school.

Rape stats may be no higher than in years past, but the numbers are as shocking as ever. Every two minutes, a sexual assault happens in the U.S., and nearly 50 percent of the victims are under the age of 18, according to Katherine Hull, a spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: "The demographic of high school- and college-age women is at highest risk for sexual assault." More than half of the incidents go unreported, advocates say. The ability to record and communicate gang-sex assaults has added a new enhancement to an old and ugly crime against women. From Instagram to Snapchat to texting, young people with raging hormones and low impulse control are passing around what amounts to child pornography. And the bodies most frequently watched and passed around are female.

"It's a perfect storm of technology and hormones," says lawyer Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology in Chicago. "Teen sexting is all a way of magnifying girls' fantasies of being a star of their own movies, and boys locked in a room bragging about sexual conquest."

But as of yet the law provides little protection to the rights of those violated. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act effectively means that no Internet provider can be forced to take down content for invading a person's privacy or even defaming them. "I could sue The New York Times for invading my privacy or Rolling Stone for defaming me," Andrews says. "But I couldn't sue and get my picture off a website called sluttyseventhgraders.com."

The flip side of this ugly trend is that when gang-rape participants and bystanders record and disseminate pictures of an assault, public outrage is inflamed and cops and prosecutors have evidence they can take to court. This can mean rape victims get more justice than in years past. Arguably, the Steubenville rape would never have been prosecuted without the video. However, since so many of the incidents involve juveniles, punishment is neither swift nor certain.

Prosecutors all over the nation are facing the same social and legal quandary: How do you protect young women from not just sexual assault but the magnification of those assaults via the Internet? How much punishment can they mete out to boys, who in many cases are only a year or two removed from childhood, who seem to think they are committing pranks with phones and passed-out girls, and for whom the ultimate charge – rape – means the end of their lives before they start? Finally, how do you instill in impulse-driven teens of both sexes the knowledge that whatever they record on their phones and send can reach the entire world and stay public forever?

Audrie Pott was born on May 27th, 1997. Her parents split before she was five, and Larry Pott, an entrepreneur who ran a commerical-security business, married a younger Canadian woman, became a Jehovah's Witness and had three more children. For most of her life, Audrie shuttled between her father's sprawling hillside home and her mother's smaller house. Her father and stepmother, Lisa, thought she was basically a happy kid, but Audrie's friends got earfuls about how she fought with her stepmom. Lisa says she was a disciplinarian who put a tracking app on Audrie's phone and wouldn't let her miss school, whereas her mother was more lenient.

During Audrie's freshman year at Saratoga, she became unhappy in a way that confounded her parents. She began missing school so much that she flunked a class. But Sheila couldn't pry the cause of the academic struggles out of her daughter. It certainly wasn't her intellect – Audrie attended summer school for the class she had failed and got A's. Sheila began to suspect that bullying played a role and called a meeting with Audrie and school officials because she began to worry Saratoga wasn't doing enough to help her daughter. "I asked if they thought she was being bullied," says Sheila. "A counselor came in, a young woman, and actually said to Audrie, 'Get a different group of friends.'"

On top of that, for the past few years, Audrie had a particularly tortured relationship with her body. By the time she was 13, she'd sprouted 34DD breasts. Though this won her attention from boys, it also made her morbidly self-conscious. During freshman year, she became obsessed with the shape of her stomach and liked to wear too-small clothes to be more like her friends. "She wanted," says her mother, "to be just like the superskinny Asian girls in her circle."

Her friends knew Audrie had body-image issues. She refused to eat in public. "She wouldn't eat anything for breakfast," says Amanda, one of Audrie's closest friends. "She would eat an orange at lunch and then wait for dinner. If she felt hungry, when no one was looking she would eat. Or I would make her eat."

Looking back on it, her friends think that these problems developed in middle school, during several years of sexually tinged bullying. Most people can recall their own nightmarish junior-high humiliations, but even by those standards, the Redwood Middle School Class of 2011 set a new bar. "This is a mean group of kids," Sheila recalls one teacher telling her. Audrie belonged to the dominant group, but that offered little protection. One boy – who later left school – made a "hot list" of girls and had admitted to dreams about killing Audrie, prompting school administrators to separate him from her.

The boys in her class would ridicule the girls about their bodies, while at the same time pressuring them to expose themselves for the camera. According to friends of Audrie's, sexting was epidemic. By seventh grade, boys were daring girls to send them photos: "bra or no bra." The girls, not understanding the lasting consequences, more often than not complied. "They want the boys to like them," says Amanda. "And they don't want them to think they're not cool."

"It started without bras," Kathy says. "There were some girls that sent pictures to any guys that asked. They wanted the attention so much that they would do anything for it and they didn't think what the consequences would be." Audrie, another friend said, might have sent one once. Her choice: bra.

According to Audrie's friends, one of the three boys eventually arrested for the assault, Joe, was a leader of the teasing pack in middle school and especially sadistic. "He would pick one person to make fun of for a few weeks, then move on to another," Amanda says. Bill had a reputation as a troublemaker, while Ron was more of a "sweet" guy.

Audrie started her sophomore year at Saratoga High two days after the assault, with the knowledge that photos of her naked and luridly decorated body were circulating around school. She cut chemistry to avoid talking to Kathy. Then Amanda told her she had seen a group of boys huddled around Joe and his phone and assumed they were looking at pictures of Audrie on the night of the party.

Audrie persevered. She missed only one day of school that week and put on a brave face. But her friends noticed cuts on her arm, which she claimed were due to a broken vase on her mother's couch. In math class, one of Audrie's friends teased her about the wounds. "I heard you cut yourself," the girl said loudly. Audrie started to cry.

She went out the following weekend and joined a posse of girls, even stopping in at the home of one of the three boys who had allegedly abused her the weekend before. Audrie kept smiling.

Two days later she hanged herself.

In the wake of Audrie's death, Saratoga police agreed with school administrators to wait until the following week, September 17th, to initiate an investigation to "allow students, friends and staff to mourn and grieve."

But on September 13th, Kathy went to talk to school administrators and describe what she knew about the party at Sara's house and how kids at school had pictures of Audrie. While Audrie's parents were arranging for her funeral, her organs already transplanted, a sheriff's deputy met with a school official who provided a letter summarizing Kathy's statements. No one from the school contacted the family, though.

By the time police arrived to interview students, word had already started to spread through campus and students were sharing rumors about who was getting hauled into an administrative office and why. One of Audrie's friends from middle school was overheard telling another student, "Shut down your Facebooks, cops are looking." Another friend had even acknowledged in a Facebook message to Audrie before she died that he didn't want to discuss it further on Facebook – presumably because there would be a record.

A Pott family member in a nearby town heard the rumors of the police investigation from a student and called Larry the night of Sunday, September 16th, urging him not to cremate his daughter's body – which was scheduled for the next day – because a crime might have occurred.

On September 14th, the police pulled Bill out of class and interviewed him at school, then criminally cited him with a misdemeanor, handing him over to his father's custody. They interviewed the other two boys and also cited them, but continued their investigation. According to sources, when the police executed a search warrant on the boys, on September 21st, they discovered that Ron's phone was broken and one of Bill's phones had gone missing. The Pott family believes the damaged and missing devices delayed the investigation for up to seven months while the police tried to recover enough evidence to charge the teens with sexual battery and possession of child pornography.

Bill's parents soon took him out of Saratoga High and enrolled him in a school in another city, where he was allowed to play football. Joe and Ron remained at Saratoga.

A year later, it's almost impossible to gauge exactly how far the pictures of Audrie got – and how many people saw them. One senior says that he knew from "casual conversation" that "a clique of friends" had passed around the pictures. A senior connected with the football team would tell a reporter that he was among a number of boys who had looked at a photo of Audrie on Joe's phone. The Saratoga Falcon student newspaper reported approximately 10 students saw an image of her defiled body.

Attorneys representing the boys have claimed that their clients had nothing to do with Audrie's suicide and work to portray Audrie as a desperate, troubled young woman. "Much of what has been reported . . . is inaccurate," said a statement jointly issued by the teens' lawyers in April. "Most disturbing is the attempt to link (Audrie's) suicide to the specific actions of these three boys. We are hopeful that everyone understands that these boys, none of whom have ever been in trouble with the law, are to be regarded as innocent."

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosen declined to comment on the specifics of Audrie's case. But his office is pushing the California Assembly to write a law making cyberbullying an aggravating element in sexual-assault cases. "This piece of legislation is meant to give us an opening to tell young people in middle school and high school that this is a crime," says Rosen. The law is still in the writing stages, though, and the local legislator hasn't even introduced it.

"What's really changed is that before the Internet you could do something really stupid and maybe someone would take a picture of it, so there's the picture and the film, and you could physically capture that," says Rosen. "You can't capture things on the Internet. What's very clear to me from this Pott case, and other cases around the country, is that for raped or sexually assaulted young girls, it's one thing that people are gossiping about you in school, but when you add images that they can keep forwarding, it really can seem like the whole world knows."

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