Teen suicides linked to disturbing trend: online images of sexual assault

Audrie Pott, 15, from California, and Canadian Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, killed themselves, their families say, after images of their being sexually assaulted were posted online.

Family photo provided by attorney Robert Allard/AP
A Northern California sheriff's office has arrested three 16-year-old boys on accusations that they sexually battered 15-year-old Audrie Pott, who hanged herself eight days after the attack last fall.

Less than a month after two boys were sent to juvenile prison for raping a girl in Steubenville, Ohio, allegations of teens circulating online images of sexual violence are again coming to light – this time with the added tragic element of suicide.

Fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott killed herself last year after boys from her school sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious at a party, her family’s attorney says, adding that photos of the assault were spread online.

Three 16-year-old boys who attended Saratoga High School in California at the time of the attack were arrested Thursday on suspicion of sexual battery.

In Nova Scotia, Canada, public pressure prompted a government investigation into a similar case. Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons killed herself last weekend, and her family says it followed months of bullying stemming from an online photo of her rape by four schoolmates.

In Ohio, legal authorities are considering charging people who were aware of but did not report the Steubenville rape after related information and images spread on social media.

“Very frequently with sexual assaults and exploitation [among teens], it’s being used as the priming of the pump to make you cooler and more popular online, because you have access to those images,” says New Jersey-based cyberbullying expert Parry Aftab. Kids are increasingly like reality-show producers – watching how big of an audience they can get on their web pages, she says.

“We’re seeing a huge growth in offline assaults connected to online provocation or publication,” Ms. Aftab says.

When she says “provocation,” Aftab is referring to cases such as a girl who created a fake Facebook page in the name of another girl and put up sexual images to provoke harassment and gang attacks against her.

For victims of sexual assault, a second wave of tragedy comes when pictures show up online. “When you get these sexual images out there, a lot of kids who were their friends will blame them – the same things rape victims have always [faced],” Ms. Aftab says. “So they are very isolated, there’s no one to talk to … and we’re seeing more and more suicides and self harm.”

Advocates for victims want them to know there are supporting resources available (see below), and they hope cases that receive widespread media attention will help generate more education about prevention.

Sixty-three percent of sexual assaults are never reported to authorities, says Tracy Cox, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) in Enola, Penn. The victim in Steubenville didn’t want to press charges at first, Ms. Cox says, but her family was a tremendous support system and they “identified that this is not OK, this is a crime, this should not be tolerated.”

Some victims, as seems to be the case in Saratoga and Nova Scotia, don’t find that hope or resilience in time, and instead turn to suicide.

Audrie Pott’s family wanted her name published, partly to raise awareness about the issues, their lawyer, Robert Allard said. A press conference is scheduled for Tuesday for Mr. Allard and the family to discuss the case, a possible civil suit, and a law they want to propose related to sexual assault and cyberbullying.

Teens’ pervasive use of digital and social media is a double-edged sword in these situations, Cox says, because it makes the impact on victims much worse, but it is also “aiding prosecutors in gathering evidence to bring this to justice.”

Teens have a huge awareness gap, Cox and others say, when it comes to understanding both sexual violence and the impact of spreading related images through social media. Some of the young witnesses in the Steubenville trial, which Cox attended, did not realize that a rape was going on or that the images they were sending would be harmful, while others “said they knew something wasn’t OK, but they didn’t know what to do.”

When Aftab talks with teens, most of them are shocked when she explains to them that photos and texts on their phones and social media sites can be used in legal cases against them.

More than a quarter of middle- and high-school students in dating relationships experience physical dating violence or cyber-based dating abuse, according to an Urban Institute survey that included just over 5,600 teens, the largest to date to look at the role of technology and abuse among teens.

The survey found that teens being abused and harassed online are two times as likely to be physically abused, two and a half times as likely to be psychologically abused, and five times as likely to be sexually coerced as peers who are not experiencing the online problems.

Schools have a responsibility to create a safe environment for teens, free from sexual harassment and abuse, and that extends to students’ online behavior if it can impact the school environment, says Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.

The US Department of Education has “stepped up in important ways,” to enforce this aspect of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination, Ms. Graves says.

It has recently circulated a reminder to schools about their responsibilities related to responding to and preventing sexual harassment and assault, for instance. Just this week the Framingham, Mass., school district received notice that the Education Department is investigating a complaint that the district did not respond properly to complaints that a student raped two younger students at Framingham High School, The Boston Globe reports.

One prevention approach with middle-schoolers that has been shown to reduce harassment and sexual violence is a curriculum called Shifting Boundaries, which involves classroom and schoolwide activities to teach kids about everything from personal space to legal definitions of harassment and sexual consent.

In a study of 2,700 middle-schoolers in New York City, the combination of the classroom and schoolwide activities had reduced sexual harassment by about one-third, physical and sexual dating violence by half, and sexual violence among peers by more than a third, six months after the interventions.

School activities included mapping hotspots where students, particularly girls, felt less safe in schools. Administrators would then post more monitors or re-route students between classes to cut down on harassment or potential violence.

Kids also learned they could ask for “respecting boundaries” agreements, the school equivalent of a restraining order, says Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and an author of the study.

One 13-year-old went to talk to a counselor after her boyfriend, who wasn’t getting the message that she was breaking up with him, tried to corner her in a remote part of the school playground. She had seen one of the posters put up as part of the schoolwide harassment prevention strategy, and “she was able to resolve this without any harm coming to her,” Ms. Stein says.

Teens are often hesitant to talk to parents about either sexual issues or cyberbullying, Aftab says. By the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Stop Cyberbullying program she’s involved with is planning to have a North American helpline set up, staffed by teens guided by mental health professionals.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month awareness month in the United States, and tools for teens, parents, and educators can be found at the National Sexual Violence Resource center website www.nsvrc.org/saam

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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