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Hudson teen's suicide puts spotlight on cyber-bullying

HUDSON — Jessica Laney's friends kept telling her to close her account on ask.fm, a social networking website where people can post anonymous questions on a person's profile. For months, Jessica — a beautiful, slender, 16-year-old soccer player — had been deluged with hate mail. Instead of questions, some people posted declarative sentences for the Fivay High School sophomore:

She was fat, she was mean, no one liked her.

Jessica canceled her account twice.

"We would tell her, 'Don't reactivate it,' " said one of her best friends, Lisa Arthur, 15. "But she would. She'd say, 'I just want to see what people are saying.'

"Sometimes the curiosity gets to you."

Last week, she met the toxic online taunting with retorts.

"Die," someone posted.

"Maybe later," Jessica wrote. "I'm to busy focusing on my future."

"you have pretty eyes but your fat," someone posted.

"awesome. but i'm not fat," she said.

"i don't like you," someone posted.

Jessica sent a video in response and said she didn't care. She winked and smiled.

"nobody even cares about you," someone wrote.

"yes they do," Jessica said.

"can you just kill youself already," someone wrote.

"why.." Jessica posted.

Lisa spoke with Jessica on Sunday morning. She sounded fine, happy, bubbly, like she usually did. They planned a bonfire party for the next weekend.

But, to the shock of Lisa and others, that evening Jessica committed suicide. According to District Six Medical Examiner Office office, Jessica hanged herself. She is the sixth teenager to commit suicide in Pasco County this year, a number that seems to be slowly rising. Last year there were five suicides of children ages 10 to 19 in Pasco, the medical examiner's office states. In 2010, there were two. In 2005, there was one.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is investigating her death. So far, there has been no evidence that Jessica was bullied at school or ever told any staffers at the school about the online bullying, said Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco.

"We are begging teenagers and their parents that, if bullying is occurring, to please let us know immediately," Nocco said.

He said students found to be bullying others can be charged with harassment or stalking. Nocco said investigators are working with the school system to research allegations Jessica was bullied online. He urges parents to keep strict watch on what their children are doing online, to look out for bullying and other dangers lurking on the Internet, such as sexual predators.

Jessica's death, he said, is a "tragic loss."

Angie Stone, the principal at Fivay, said Jessica was well liked and had many friends.

"You never saw her that she wasn't smiling," Stone said.

Mental health counselors have been on hand this week to help grieving students.

"Our main message to our students and our parents right now is that no problem is insurmountable," she said, "that there are always options and help is always available."

Sarah Ball, a 17-year-old Hernando High senior who created an anti-bullying organization last year called Unbreakable, said it's hard to escape the cruelties of cyberbullying. You see your tormentors during the day and then they attack you at night. She started cutting herself after being bullied online. On her birthday, one person sent her a text message saying, "It's sad to know you're still alive."

"It felt never-ending," she said.

She was helped when her mother found some email messages in which Sarah was being tormented. Her mother helped her raise her self-confidence. Sarah now tries to use her experience to help others — and to prevent suicides like Jessica's, if bullying was one of her reasons.

Lisa thinks it wasn't the only reason. But it was there.

"It was definitely a big, major part of why," she said.

Friends have created a Facebook page in Jessica's memory, warning of the dangers of cyber-bullying. Others have launched an online petition drive with the hope of shutting down the ask.fm site.

Jessica lived in Hudson, in a house with a huge yard and a Christmas wreath on the front door. She had a brother and loved shopping.

Her family declined to talk with the Times on Tuesday.

Jessica had struggled previously with depression, Lisa said. Jessica was taken into mental health custody in June after threatening to hang herself if her parents didn't let her leave the house, a Pasco Sheriff's report states. Her mother said Jessica was acting "out of character" and bit and punched her.

Lisa said she thought Jessica had healed from that time.

"Words hurt more than people think," Lisa said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

>>fast facts

If you need help

If you are considering suicide, call 911 or 211 to reach the nearest crisis center or toll-free 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Hudson teen's suicide puts spotlight on cyber-bullying 12/11/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 8:29pm]
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