Last Labor Day weekend, 15-year-old Audrie Pott went to a small party thrown by one of her classmates at Saratoga High School, a small suburban public school sandwiched between Apple headquarters and Big Basin's redwood forest in Northern California. Audrie and her friends drank Gatorade and alcohol that evening, but after a while, Audrie began to feel like she'd had too much, and she went upstairs to sleep in an empty bedroom.
What happened next has become the subject of countless international headlines and left behind grieving family and friends, and yet it took seven months, thirteen confiscated cell phones, and three arrest warrants for Audrie's parents to finally conclude why their bubbly, witty teenage daughter who loved art and soccer committed suicide a week after the party by hanging herself in her parents' bathroom: She was sexually assaulted by her friends, then aggressively cyberbullied by her classmates while an indifferent school administration refused to intervene.
It's become vogue to decry and denounce cyberbullying — the public persecution of someone via social media. This popular cause not only seems a collective catharsis for those concerned by the expanding digital intrusion into individual privacy, but the issue also couples the hot topics of sexuality and the internet.
The tragic story of Audrie Pott has become the latest to gain traction in this narrative of web bullying pushing young people over the edge. Audrie's family, after retracing their deceased daughter's digital footprints, is convinced she was driven to self-destruction by the mass online circulation of sexually explicit photos of her. "With no assault, with no cyberbullying, Audrie is in art class right now," Larry Pott, Audrie's father, told reporters shortly after the family decided to go public with Audrie's story.
But now their narrative is being called into question by many of her classmates and by dozens of interviews conducted as part of an ongoing investigation by Audrie's school newspaper. These student reporters claim that the photos in question hardly went viral and may have been seen by only a few people. They further contend that an overemphasis on cyberbullying is overshadowing a much more fundamental aspect of this case: sexual assault.
Nearly a year after it happened, Audrie's death raises more questions than it answers. Are her grief-stricken parents ginning up a catchphrase cause of digital danger where it doesn't exist? Or are Audrie's former classmates engaging in a teenage version of omertà, a refusal to rat one another out for leering at and forwarding a set of pics that literally drove Audrie to hang herself?
"We have no idea how many photos were taken that night or the exact number of people who may have seen them," says Samuel Liu, a Saratoga High junior and student reporter, who, along with his colleagues, has conducted over 50 interviews with classmates on behalf of The Saratoga Falcon, the student-run newspaper.
What doesn't seem up for dispute is that something bad happened to Audrie at that party. According to the Pott's family attorney, Robert Allard, after Audrie went to lie down, three boys followed her. Allard says the young men committed "unimaginable" acts on Audrie while she was unconscious. When she awoke the next morning, she found her shorts had been taken off and one of the boys had scribbled his name in black marker followed by "was here" on her body.
One or more of her attackers took pictures of the assault and distributed the photos via text and email. At school that Monday — the first week of her sophomore year — Audrie saw clumps of students huddled over their cell phones in the hallways, laughing and gawking at her. The photos spread through the school "like wildfire," Allard told reporters at a recent press conference. "The whole school knew."
A week later, Sheila Pott knocked on her bathroom door to make sure Audrie was all right. Earlier that afternoon, Audrie had called Sheila pleading to be picked up early from school.
"I can't do this anymore," Audrie had said.
Sheila heard no response when she knocked on the bathroom door again, and when she opened it, she found her daughter unconscious. Audrie had tried to hang herself. She was quickly hospitalized but two days later was taken off life support by her family. Saratoga's principal announced Audrie's death over the loudspeaker the next day at school, and the local press briefly mentioned Audrie's passing — but her parents buried their daughter without a clue as to why she would take her own life; they hadn't heard anything about the party or its aftermath.
After her memorial, Sheila, her ex-husband Larry, and his wife Lisa started going through their daughter's Facebook messages, and a narrative began to emerge. Some of the messages Audrie sent in the week before her death included these:
"I have a reputation for a night I don't even remember and the whole school knows."
"The people I thought I could trust f***ed me over and then tried to lie to cover it up."
"[The boys] can die in a hole for all I care."
"My life is over."
"I'm in hell. Everyone knows about that night."
"I cried when I found out what they did."
Audrie's family hired their own private investigator to find out what happened to their daughter the night of the party, and in April, Audrie's parents went public with the details of their daughter's assault, telling reporters they decided to give the details of her death in response to the epidemic of "cyberbullying and sexual assault," pointing to the cases in Nova Scotia and Steubenville, Ohio, as examples.
The mood at a candlelight vigil held at Saratoga High in Audrie's honor last month was somber but tense. Days before the vigil, the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the very school whose ground they stood on that evening. They've even lashed out at the tony suburban community that surrounds the school. Saratoga is a prosperous tech hub at the edge of Silicon Valley; its ranch homes are filled with computer engineers and software designers. Nestled at the foothills of a redwood forest, Saratoga is considered a friendly and safe — if not a little sterile — place to live and raise a family. The Pott family contends that the town's squeaky-clean reputation is preventing students from coming forward with more details of Audrie's assault. Sheila Pott recently told the San Jose Mercury News that it's as though people think, "Oh my god, if we get a bad reputation, our property values will go down. It's that shallow."
Audrie's father grew emotional as he addressed the 100-person crowd gathered for the memorial. "Audrie was always the peacemaker among her friends," Larry Pott said, his voice cracking. "Now we're going to make the peace for her."
The wrongful death lawsuit holds the school and the three boys (who have not been named, because they're minors) accused of sexually assaulting their daughter as equally responsible for Audrie's death. The suit accuses Saratoga High administrators of negligence for failing to discipline Audrie's assailants and for turning a blind eye to the bullying Audrie suffered after the photos went public. "[Audrie] was subjected to atrocities committed by her classmates," the suit claims, "and then subjected to humiliation and shame through bullying on her campus. Her suffering was so severe she found her only escape through death."
But as more details of the case emerge, rebuttals from both the school administration and Audrie's classmates are starting to cast doubt on how much cyberbullying contributed to the teenager's death. Though the family originally claimed there was an "abundance" of pictures and emails depicting Audrie's assault, stories that have run in The Saratoga Falcon indicate that Audrie's parents have it wrong.
Students are also bristling at being characterized as accomplices in a conspiracy to torment their schoolmate, and some are growing frustrated that the issue of sexual assault is being overshadowed by the cyberbullying claims.
"There has been a lot of support and sympathy on behalf of Audrie," says Liu. "My sense, from talking to students, is not that [the school] is holding back information to protect the boys who assaulted her. It's more that hardly anyone knew about it." Liu says he believes if word of the assault had been more widespread, like the family and media has suggested, "more students would have done something about it."
Liu points out that a few of Audrie's close friends who knew about Audrie's assault did do something about it — albeit too late. According to a four-page rebuttal issued by the Los Gatos Unified School system, a small group voluntarily came forward immediately after Audrie's suicide and reported to Saratoga's assistant principal the rumors they had heard about an assault Audrie suffered at a party. Since there was only hearsay and rumor about the assault, the school says it waited roughly three days to tell Audrie's mother, "out of compassion for the family." The Monday following Audrie's memorial service, Sept. 17, the sheriff's office contacted the family about the assault investigation.
As to the cyberbullying charge, the school states its "investigation showed that [Audrie] never reported or sought counseling for bullying before or after the alleged sexual assault. If she had, our staff would have reported it and taken preventative steps to stop it." In addition, the rebuttal adds that the school has "been unable to verify the extent to which any photographic images may have been shared on campus or the Internet before or after her suicide that may have contributed to her feeling embarrassed or harassed.''
Administrators claim they are powerless to discipline the three students because the party took place at a private residence and was a non-school gathering, though the school did kick two of the three boys off the football team for breaking the school's code of conduct. On April 11, seven months after Audrie's suicide, detectives came to the Saratoga High campus and took the two boys away in handcuffs. Another boy, who had transferred to Gilroy High School, was also arrested that day. The three were later charged in juvenile court with misdemeanor sexual battery, felony distribution of child pornography, and felony forcible sexual penetration. The boys were released from the juvenile detention center one week later on house arrest and are now awaiting trial. (Officials at Saratoga High did not respond to a request for comment; one teacher responded to say that no one could comment due to the pending lawsuit.)
"There was a real feeling of outrage against the boys in the school," Liu says. The anger on campus was great enough for the school's football coach to caution the team against taking out their own "vigilante justice" against the boys since two of them were former teammates. "Personally, I feel, they deserve everything they get," Liu adds.
But Liu and the Falcon staff are still challenging the Pott family's claim that the photos of the assault went "viral." "We wanted to fact-check that because it didn't sound accurate" — and it was not accurate, Liu says. The Falcon's investigation uncovered one student, a friend of both Audrie's and the three arrested boys, who told the paper under the condition of anonymity that he believes a picture of the assault was shared with "less than 10 people" and, rather than being a prurient viral sensation, was regarded as more of a secret.
Curcelli, Liu, and other Falcon editors want to do additional reporting on what they feel is a more fundamental aspect of the Pott case: sexual assault. "I think cyberbullying is a big issue," Liu says, "but what seems to be happening is that this already horrible situation is being twisted to fit an agenda against cyberbullying." Curcelli and Liu are now working on newspaper pieces about what they call "rape culture" among young Americans. When asked why the cyberbullying angle of the Pott case has gained such attention, Curcelli responds, "I think it might be easier — and less embarrassing — for people to talk about cyberbullying than it is for them to talk about sexual assault."
Although cyberbullying has become a hot public topic, it is often misguided and dismisses harder issues to talk about, argues youth researcher Danah Boyd, a professor of Media and Culture at New York University who has written extensively about social networks and cyberbullying. "Pointing the finger at cyberbullies — that is, a group of individuals — is much simpler than confronting mental illness or sexual harassment," Boyd says. She has conducted dozens of interviews with high school students in her research on bullying, harassment, and social media, and says that her findings show that a negligible amount of teens identify themselves as being victims of cyberbullying. And when young men publicize their sexual exploits of girls on social media, that's not cyberbullying, Boyd argues: "That's modern-day sexual harassment." Conflating the two is a disservice to teens because the overwhelming majority of the teenagers Boyd spoke to regard the gossiping and "drama" in their online world as petty.
"There is a spectrum of meanness and cruelty," Boyd says, and sustained, face-to-face cruelty from people who have greater social power inflicts far more emotional pain on teens.
Audrie's case, Boyd believes, is "cleaved" in two parts. "There is the deep and awful sexual violation of a vulnerable girl," Boyd says, "and then there is her reaction to that violation." Suicide, to put it simply, is not a reasonable reaction, Boyd argues. "When a teenager commits suicide, they believe they are relieving themselves of unbearable pain that will otherwise never cease; that they have nothing positive to live for and they are ridding the people who love them of a problem. That points to a much deeper emotional problem and even a chemical problem in the brain, like depression." What frustrates Boyd is that all the current rhetoric about cyberbullying further alienates teens by failing to offer any real solutions. "Cyberbullying is a trope," she says. "It's an easy way to create demons and monsters that we can punish, while allowing people to distance themselves from any real culpability."
And in the end, Audrie's stepmother says it doesn't matter how many people actually saw the photo. "I don't care if it was 10 people who knew or 100 people who knew," she said at a recent press conference. "In [Audrie's] mind, it was an epidemic."
At the April candlelight vigil, only a few of Audrie's friends spoke to the crowd. They shared quick anecdotes about Audrie's bubbly personality in the classroom and urged students to be "more respectful of each other." A student from a neighboring school, who did not know Audrie, took the microphone and told the audience that she was bullied and had toyed with the idea of suicide. "I think we all, as students, can quote lines from Mean Girls by heart," said the young brunette swaddled up in her hoodie. "But I think we need to reexamine the theme of that movie."
Many of the speakers were adults from Saratoga or neighboring Los Gatos. They urged students to step forward if they see cyberbullying. A mother in her sixties sternly told the crowd, "If you pay your child's cell phone bill, then you have every right to download their text messages." Some of the teenage attendants visibly flinched. "You have the right to download software and monitor every keystroke. You should find out if they have a Twitter account."
Rape and sexual assault remained unmentioned until the last minutes of the vigil, when a small, slight blonde woman bundled up in a gray duster told the grieving crowd that she was raped when she was 12. "I had no one to tell, and I can only imagine how scared I would be if I was Audrie and other people knew about my violation," she said. "I wouldn't have been able to tell anyone what I was feeling."
After the vigil concluded, several girls dressed in teal, Audrie's favorite color, somberly huddled next to one another and read a large butcher-paper banner filled with messages and remembrances of Audrie. In pink marker, one student wrote, "You tried to do the right thing, I understand that. But always know that your friends were behind you and feel your absence."