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Sexting, Shame and Suicide

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With Saratoga High in communication-­lockdown mode because of the threat of a lawsuit, and administrators refusing to speak even to the community, parents are on their own as far as what they are supposed to do or say to their kids. One Saratoga mother of a teen boy and girl, Selena Kellinger, says she's talking to both her kids about the issue.

"When my daughter was in high school, girls were taking pictures of themselves topless, and of course that goes around," says Kellinger. "I had a conversation, a week before Audrie committed suicide, with my son. I said, 'Please don't send sexts – if you get caught, it's pornography. Delete it. It's not funny.' And a week later, this happened. The boys are just so stupid. They think it's funny writing on a girl's vagina. They don't respect personal-space boundaries."

Adding another layer of tragedy to Audrie Pott's death is that virtually the same thing had happened in the town three years earlier. In 2009, Jill Naber, a freshman at Saratoga's sister school, Los Gatos High School, committed suicide. The popular cheerleader hanged herself after a topless selfie circulated. The photo went viral – apparently shared electronically all the way down to schools in Fresno that played against the Los Gatos teams.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, Los Gatos took steps to address the issue by launching counseling and educational outreach services for the problems teens run into with sexual images and technology. "A lot of what happens on campus starts online the night before," Los Gatos principal Markus Autrey told a local newspaper reporter after Naber's death.

But Saratoga school officials would not make that link, publicly denying that Audrie's suicide had anything to do with events that occurred at the school. Days after the suicide, responding to questions from a San Jose Mercury News reporter about rumors of school bullying, principal Paul Robinson said that the rumor was "as far from the truth as it can be." Administrators have since refused to respond to questions, citing the ongoing police investigation.

In the little dry cleaners, boutiques, delis and coffee shops along Saratoga's curving main street, Big Basin Way, and in the mansions up on the purple, piney mountainsides that shade the town long before sunset, two camps formed. There are those who think the boys involved should be severely punished and whose anger has sometimes reached vigilante-threat proportions. On the other side, there are people who think the boys are guilty of a stupid but basically innocent prank and that Audrie's suicide had other causes.

Only one parent of the accused boys returned a call to Rolling Stone. He asked that we not name his son and said the story has been wildly misreported. "We are extremely saddened about what happened to Audrie," he says. "But the story that things went viral, that the picture went up on Facebook, it is flat untrue. This was not Steubenville. It was a prank by a few kids, and it's blown out of proportion. Audrie had a lot of other problems in her life, and everybody in Saratoga knows that."

It's a sentiment shared by many parents around town. "These boys are not bad boys!" says the mother of a friend of one of the boys at the party. "They are goofy and silly. If there is a sleepover, one of the boys might put whipped cream on someone's hand. They are not malicious, mean criminals. This is costing their families thousands and thousands of dollars, and we are not all rich."

The students who talked to Rolling Stone were – much like the parents – divided into two factions about the boys' relative guilt. Many were eager to protect Saratoga's otherwise sterling reputation. The student-newspaper editor Sam Liu said there is a lot of sympathy for the Potts, but also "tons of rumors" that Audrie had family problems that provoked her suicide.

But recent Saratoga High graduate Jessica Hayes describes a school environment where disrespecting girls is neither rare nor effectively addressed. Hayes recalled two ugly incidents with football players that occurred during her own freshman year. A boy from the team unzipped her sweater in the middle of the quad, exposing her bra. When she kneed him, she was disciplined. Months later, a group of four or five boys surrounded her at a football game and tried to intimidate her into going under the bleachers with them. She punched one boy and ran, and then endured "20 to 30 harassing texts a day" for months. During her freshman year, she ate lunch in her mother's car, rather than with the other students.

"If you feel disrespected, the office staff doesn't do much to help you," Hayes says. "If something does happen, the girls feel you have to deal with it on your own. It would have been so hard for Audrie to go back to school. Half the people have seen her naked, half the people think she's a whore, and judge and bully her. Teachers know. They can't not. They hear about it."

To cope with the shock of Audrie's death, Saratoga students arranged a memorial day on which everyone was supposed to wear teal, Audrie's favorite color. Grief counselors were brought in. An art teacher organized a girls-leadership group to facilitate discussion among girls about self-respect. Then things went quiet. The accused boys kept going to school, whispers died down.

On April 11th, seven months after Audrie's suicide, the Santa Clara County sheriff arrested the three boys on charges of misdemeanor sexual battery, felony possession of child pornography and felony sexual penetration. When they arrested the boys, police seized new phones and other electronic gadgetry their parents had bought to replace what authorities took in the fall. Police found new pictures of other nude teen girls on some of their phones, prompting them to add on new charges in July. Sources close to the case tell Rolling Stone that police discovered one of the boys was trying to make money selling the pictures.

Two of the boys have admitted that the felony charges against them are true, according to sources close to the case, and they are awaiting sentencing – which could range from community service or time in a juvenile-detention center. Their records will be sealed when they turn 18. The third boy may be upgraded to adult court, where the sentence is harsher and a sexual-assault charge would remain on his file for life. California prosecutors are limited by a statute requiring a sexual assault committed by a minor age 14 and over to be "forcible" in order to directly qualify for adult court. A sexual assault on an unconscious victim is not considered forcible.

On April 15th, the Pott family held a press conference announcing they were filing a civil suit against the boys and their families (the parents who own the party house settled in August), and filed an administrative claim against the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District, alleging that administrators were lax in responding to bullying against Audrie – bullying that the school claims was never discussed.

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