The family and classmates of a Tennessee high school student who killed himself after being outed online as bisexual have demanded that the school and state authorities investigate and prosecute those responsible, calling it a case of “social media bullying.”
The student, Channing Smith, a 16-year-old junior at Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, Tenn., took his own life on Sept. 23 after sexually explicit text messages that he had exchanged with a male classmate were posted on social media, according to his family.
“He was absolutely humiliated,” his older brother, Joshua Smith, said by phone on Monday, describing the messages as “very explicit.”
“There was no way he could have gone to school afterward,” he added.
A few hours later, Channing shot and killed himself, his brother said. In Channing’s final post on Instagram, he said, “I really hate how I can’t trust anyone because those I did were so fake.”
Channing’s mother, Crystal Smith, addressed a crowd at one of the vigils, according to the local television station WTVF. “Just because you think it’s cute or funny to make somebody embarrassed or humiliate them, think again,” she said. “Because if somebody would have realized that, my son would not be dead.”
Saying he was “beyond disappointed” with the school’s handling of the case, Joshua Smith argued that administrators had tamped down students’ attempts to call attention to Channing’s death, and he noted that state officials had not brought criminal charges against anyone in the case.
Charles Lawson, the director of the Coffee County Schools, said in a statement that the school district was “not at liberty to make any statements concerning the matter at this time.”
“A legal investigation is being conducted that involves some of our students,” he said.
Dr. Lawson added: “Counseling was provided at the school for students and staff who were struggling with what occurred. The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network has reached out to provide resources for those that are dealing with this difficult situation.”
The Coffee County district attorney, Craig Northcott, denied that his office had “failed or refused” to investigate the matter.
“I, like the rest of the community, am deeply saddened by the tragic loss of the young life of Channing Smith,” Mr. Northcott said in a statement.
“My office has encouraged, cooperated in and supported the investigation into the events leading to this death,” he added. “Ethically, I am prohibited from commenting on an open investigation or prosecution.”
“When all relevant facts are available,” Mr. Northcott said, “my office will advise the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department on what charges, if any, we believe are appropriate to help guide it in that decision.”
A call to the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department was not immediately returned on Monday.
Channing’s death underscores the challenges of combating cyberbullying, which has proliferated in recent years. According to a report last year from the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of teenagers said they had been bullied or harassed online — and many of them thought teachers, social media companies and politicians were failing to help.
In schools across the country, L.G.B.T. students are more likely to be bullied and experience depression than their straight peers, studies have found.
Joshua Smith, who lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children, described his brother as “the sweetest kid on earth.” At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he often poked fun at his own clumsiness before others could.
“He was a band kid,” Joshua said, “so he wasn’t known as a football stud.”
Channing played the guitar and the bass, could play “Amazing Grace” on the tuba and loved to sing.
Joshua said he had been unaware that his brother was romantically involved with boys. He said investigators had told him Channing’s messages with the other boy were leaked on Instagram and Snapchat.
At one of the memorial services, Joshua said: “I can assure you that your school hopes you forget, your town hopes that you forget, right, they’re going to hope that this goes away,” adding, “But we’re not going to let that happen.”
He said his mission was to bring justice to the parties responsible for Channing’s death, and to make changes so that “no human on this earth will have to die this way again.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.