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From Audrie Pott suicide, questions about how best to help teens

High-schooler Audrie Pott killed herself after three boys sexually assaulted her. At least two of the boys have agreed to talk to teens to help promote change as part of a settlement, but that could pose problems, experts say.

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    Larry Pott, left, and his wife Lisa pose for a portrait holding a picture of their daughter Audrie in Saratoga, Calif., May 22, 2013. Audrie Pott committed suicide in September 2012 after being sexually assaulted by two boys during a house party in Saratoga.
    Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
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Audrie Pott’s parents have worked to turn the tragedy of their daughter’s suicide into hope for reform.

A wrongful-death lawsuit they brought against two Saratoga, Calif., high school boys who sexually assaulted Audrie and then spread explicit images of her a week before she died in 2012 was settled last week. It included not only an agreement from the boys’ families to pay $950,000, but also the boys’ apologies and a resolve by both parties to do something positive going forward. [Editor's note: The original text of this paragraph has been changed to give the correct name of the city.]

That, ironically, is what has a number of psychologists, anti-bullying activists, and suicide-prevention experts worried.  

Part of the settlement includes requiring the boys to participate in 10 educational presentations to teens at high schools or youth organizations on topics such as sexting, dissemination of nude photos, “slut shaming,” and the dangers of alcohol and drugs.

The motive is understandable, even noble. Parents who lose a child to suicide and believe it is linked to cyberbullying, sexual assault, or other forms of victimization understandably want to channel their grief in a productive direction. But there’s no data to suggest such programs help, while some evidence suggests they may actually do damage by inadvertently casting the boys as “stars” or planting the thought that suicide is an acceptable response to abuse.

The debate speaks to how society is wrestling to come to terms with sexual assault and the evolving forms of bullying.

“It’s so important to have these young men step forward and say, ‘Yes, we did do this,’ because the hope is that it’s going to build awareness and empathy,” which is often missing from teens who perpetrate such crimes, says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist in Bedford Hills, N.Y.

But the broad trend in recent years to think that people formerly caught up in everything from bullying to alcohol abuse can be effective voices for prevention has no research to back it up, says Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts.

Last Friday’s settlement lets Audrie’s family “move forward in a way that allows for healing and a spirit of forgiveness,” says a statement on the Facebook Page of the Audrie Pott Foundation, a nonprofit set up by her parents and stepmother.  (A third boy settled with the family earlier this year.)

But the nonmonetary aspect of the settlement has raised concerns.

For some kids in the audience, putting these young offenders “on an auditorium stage in some ways makes them into stars,” says Ms. Stein, who has created middle school lessons to prevent dating violence.

For others struggling with similar problems, it can cause copycat behavior, with vulnerable teens interpreting the story to mean that suicide is an option for those who feel humiliated or unsupported by their peers. About 16 percent of teenagers in the United States have seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months, according to national surveys.

“There is zero evidence that the transmission of this messaging will effectively reduce [harmful] behavior, and there is ample evidence that it can increase the risk of suicide,” says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age in Eugene, Ore.

It’s certainly important to address these problems, but one-shot assemblies don’t do that, and if the message is “coming from boys implicated in the death of a girl … that’s what they are going to remember,” says Maureen Underwood, clinical director for the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.

There’s some question whether Audrie was influenced by a presentation at Saratoga High School about six months before her death that mentioned suicide as one of the harmful effects bullying and sexting can have on teens, Willard says.

In recent years, she says, there have been several cases of schools offering presentations linking bullying to suicide that appeared to trigger suicide.

The better way to inform students about the dangers of negative behavior is to make it clear that such behavior is the exception, not the norm, and that other teens can be empowered to take a stand. Tell them “the majority of your peers are not getting drunk or bullying, and they don’t admire or respect those who hurt others,” Willard says.

News stories like that about Pott or the rapes in Steubenville, Ohio, “where a kid is revictimized by their peers, those cases may be the exception, not the norm,” says Elizabeth Englander, the survey author and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.    

In a preliminary survey of 454 students in Massachusetts, Ms. Englander found that, of 55 percent who knew of a teen at their school reporting a sexual assault, only 18 percent said kids were somewhat or mostly critical of that teen. She was relieved to find that 57 percent were supportive, and the remainder ignored the situation.

Students can have wildly incorrect perceptions about the scope of these problems. For example, Parry Aftab, a lawyer who specializes in cases involving children and the Internet, has counted less than 500 cases worldwide of children killing themselves after being bullied. But kids routinely tell her it’s 10 a day or a million. When they learn it’s extremely rare, it helps them understand that they can seek help themselves, and provide it for their peers.

As executive director of WiredSafety.org, Ms. Aftab has worked with former cyberbullies who agree, as part of a settlement, to participate in educational efforts. One effective way, she says, is to have trained teen peers interview the students, and to present the stories in a small setting such as a classroom, so that the facilitator can see how each person is reacting.

She hasn’t seen a situation similar to the Pott case involving sexual offenders, and she cautions that if the boys are put in front of groups, it could pose a risk to their own safety.

The Monitor contacted the Audrie Pott Foundation, Pott family lawyer Robert Allard, and a lawyer for one of the boys, and none responded to multiple requests for comment.

Parents of victims, and former offenders, “can theoretically be very powerful advocates for change,” says Englander. “The bottom line is all in how they do it.” 

 If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org): 800-273-TALK (8255) or the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673), both of which are confidential.

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