A teenager in Tennessee died by suicide after a classmate posted private, explicit messages between him and another boy on Instagram and Snapchat, outing him as bisexual, said his family, who is calling for an investigation into the “social media bullying.”
Channing Smith, a junior at Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, killed himself Sunday night hours after he found out that his peers had seen sexually explicit Facebook messages between him and another male classmate, his family said.
The 16-year-old, who wanted to be an engineer and loved motorcycles, punk rock music, and Corvettes, had not openly discussed his sexuality or identified as LGBTQ, according to his girlfriend and brother.
“They were graphic texts and there was no room for Channing to be able to claim it was a misunderstanding,” Joshua Smith, his older brother, told BuzzFeed News. “When he saw the screenshots on social media he called some people around 10 p.m. Sunday night, freaking out. His last posting on Instagram was about people he couldn’t trust.”
Channing’s father found his son's body after he woke up and noticed the light was still on in his room.
“The light was still on under his door when my dad got up at 4 a.m. so he went in to check on him...” Joshua Smith said. “He’s still in shock.”
Joshua Smith, who lives in Kentucky with his family, is also still trying to process his younger brother’s death.
Channing allegedly got into an argument with another teenager who is close friends with the boy whom he had messaged with. According to Keylee Duty, a junior at the school, the girl was mad that she didn’t know about the sexting and posted the screenshots to be vindictive.
“She was just doing it to be mean,” said Keylee, who started a group called Justice for Channing and helped organize a memorial for her classmate.
Hailey Meister, who said she had been dating Channing for about a month before he killed himself, told BuzzFeed News the messages were old and posted only “to humiliate him.”
“He didn’t deserve that. He was kind and loving and a very good person,” the 17-year-old said, adding that when the messages hit social media, Channing told her “how bad it made him feel and it was a mistake... He was trying to find himself and people called him bisexual, but he never classified specifically as that.”
The teen who posted the screenshots did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
Keylee said that teens had bullied Channing even before the social media attack, calling him names and saying that “no one liked him” because he sometimes “talked in a girly voice and walked with sass.”
Although he seemed bright and happy, Channing grew up in a “stereotypical small, Southern town,” his brother said.
“You could be gay and still like the Confederate flag and shoot pistols. It’s complicated,” Joshua Smith said. “My dad is ultra-conservative, but would never disown him, but him being gay or anything like that would have been a hard conversation.”
Being outed or cast as “gay, queer, or a sissy,” especially in an environment like that, would be devastating for a 16-year-old boy, Smith added.
Joshua Smith said Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott is not adequately investigating the teens who allegedly humiliated his little brother on social media. He said that investigators spent only a day on the case, “didn’t confiscate the kids’ phones,” claiming that they didn’t have the technology to “bypass the passcodes.”
“My dad and I had to press the issue and tell them to get a search warrant. They told us that they didn’t have the resources to get into the phones,” he said.
The district attorney has come under fire for saying same-sex couples aren’t entitled to protection against domestic violence and calling Islam an “evil belief system.”
In a statement, Northcott defended his office’s handling of the case, adding that the investigation is ongoing and charges could still be filed:
I, like the rest of the community, am deeply saddened by the tragic loss of the young life of Channing Smith. I express my heartfelt condolences to his family. My office has encouraged, cooperated in and supported the investigation into the events leading to this death. Ethically, I am prohibited from commenting on an open investigation or prosecution. However, procedurally, no charging decisions have been made by my office nor has the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department asked for a decision since the investigation has not been completed. When all relevant facts are available, 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. Any report that my office has failed or refused to act is inaccurate and I wanted to clarify this for the sake of the Smith family as they do not need the added burden to the already incomprehensible pain that they are experiencing. I would ask for the everyone to extend their prayers for the family and to respect their privacy as this process moves forward.
School leaders have also been criticized for not posting a statement honoring Channing or holding an assembly to discuss his death and condemn bullying.
“They haven’t made any mention about him or his death on their website, on Facebook, anywhere,” his brother said. “They haven’t offered counseling to the kids or gathered them to talk about anti-bullying.”
“The principal told my father that he felt like we would not want anything at our memorial service that says justice for Channing, which was total bullshit,” he added.
However, Principal Paul Parsley pushed back on those claims and defended his handling of the situation, explaining that due to the ongoing investigation involving several of his students, he has been unable to comment on the situation.
He noted that he has addressed students and faculty internally, including an announcement over the loudspeaker on Monday, expressing his sadness over Channing's death and letting the school community know that there are grief counselors available if needed.
In response to the school’s lack of attention, dozens of teens held a “strike” during a homecoming rally Friday to condemn bullying and pay tribute to Channing.
Using donated materials from art teachers, Coffee High students made spray-painted shirts and bright posters declaring “Justice for Channing.” However, Keylee said that their principal forced the teens to “take the shirts off and put the posters away.”
The principal said these actions were grossly mischaracterized and that he had instructed staff to let students at the rally to carry posters and walk out if they wanted to. Some students had used school art supplies to make posters and shirts that he felt were "inappropriate" for a memorial service because they could be seen as placing blame on their classmates .
"The vast majority of them were fine, some of them were not," Parsley said. "I talked with the students who made them and explained why we did not think they were appropriate for a memorial."
In response to complaints that officials did not hold a school-wide assembly, Parsley said the staff was trying hard to follow guidelines from the state suicide prevention network on how to best address the situation.
"We felt that it could lead to contagion," he said. "Those activities are good and they will occur later in the year, but just not right now. We felt it was not the time."
The principal also said the school was an "inclusive" place and staff are "constantly working on school culture," noting that last year, he helped found a unity club for students who identify as LGBTQ.
Parsley also said there have been hardly any official reports of bullying, though he did acknowledge that these attacks could happen without faculty's knowledge.
"Bullying is not a regular occurrence at our school based on what is reported," he said. "We tell students if they are being bullied, they should tell us and report it."
Before he died, Joshua Smith said his brother called another girl and told her that he wanted to kill himself.
“She said at the end of the call he seemed OK so she didn’t tell anyone and my brother followed through on that,” Smith said. “So I just want to tell people if someone says that, follow through, report it, don’t let it go.”
Channing, who would have turned 17 on Oct. 20, was smart, funny, a little goofy, and wanted to be an engineer. He rarely talked about his own feelings, but always made sure other people were OK, his friends said. He also loved riding his motorcycle, talking about cars he had worked on as a kid, and playing his guitar.
“He loved being around the people he loved,” Hailey said.
The teen recently started working at Burger King after begging his dad to let him get a job so he could make his own money, his brother said.
“He was so proud of that and sent me a picture of himself in his uniform,” Smith said. “He was becoming himself.”
If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, contact The Trevor Project's TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386. Counseling is also available 24/7 via chat every day at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting 678-678.