The death of a young girl in Pasco County is bringing a big problem into focus: Cyber bullying and how teens use social media anonymously.
Her name is Jessica Laney, and the 16-year-old from Fivay High School in Hudson committed suicide. Her friends have started an online petition saying she was cyber bullied on a social media site, "Ask.FM. "
The site targets teens – its main market is people ages 13 to 18 – and works like this: You create an account, and people send you anonymous questions or comments, which you can respond to.
Laney had an account on the site, and her friends say she was being bullied. Comments on her profile reflect it, including some that called her "fat." Someone even wrote that she should kill herself.
"That can be devastating, especially if you're someone who beats yourself over little things," said licensed health counselor Dae Sheridan. "We used to get into arguments, and then it was over. Now things live forever on the Internet. They live forever. You can reread it, go over it and those kinds of things really seep in."
Anyone can sign up and post questions, though the site is mostly used by teenagers.
On Laney's page, the comments and questions got worse and worse. Friends told the Tampa Bay Times that she deactivated her account twice, only to come back to see what people were saying.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office says she hanged herself in her room. They are investigating her death.
Angie Stone, principal at Fivay High School, said there's no evidence that Laney was bullied outside of the online world.
Students at the Hudson school Laney attended are still in shock.
Jasmine Minor, a senior at Fivay, played soccer with Jessica.
"She was really happy, like every time you see her, she had this really pretty Crest commercial smile one you know, she was real pretty girl, real happy girl. I would never have thought her you know," Minor said.
"It's devastating to lose a student, no matter how the loss occurs. We are a school family and we care about each and every student we have," said Fivay principal Angie Stone. "You know, it's gotta be a parent's worst nightmare to lose a child."
The case put a spotlight on a website called Ask.FM, which allows people to post anonymous comments. Jessica's page had its fair share of insults including this one, "You have pretty eyes, but your fat." She responded, "Awesome. but I'm not fat."
Ask.FM said it's not responsible for suicides based on comments posted on its sight. The European based website has been criticized in the past, after two teens in Ireland killed themselves.
"Don't blame a tool, but try to make changes . . . start with yourself . . . be more polite, more kind, more tolerant of others . . . cultivate these values in families, in schools," Mark Terebin, founder and chief executive, posted on the site during an investigation.
The site is based in Latvia, drawing interest from teenagers around the world. The "FM," though, is a country code domain for the Federated States of Micronesia, which is located in the Pacific Ocean.
Back at Jessica's school, Principal Stone said that the suicide would be a lesson for the staff.
"I think that the best thing that we can do is that we can be aware of the early signs and if we see them in our peers or we see them in kids that we teach, we have to not be afraid to report them," Stone said.
Crisis counselors were on hand on Monday to help students.
"They saw quite a few students. You know, she was well liked, popular young lady," Stone explained.
Jasmine's mother said Jessica's death has also affected parents in the community.
"It makes me feel horrible, especially this time of year, the Christmas holidays, I just cried. I didn't even know her and it and heard the comments on Facebook. It really upset me as a parent. I can't imagine what her family's going through," she said.
An outpouring of support came through social media, including a Facebook page in honor of Jessica, which calls on kids to stop bullying.
"We all wore purple and everyone was just quiet, it was just quiet. And today it's kinda like rebel. Like everyone's not speaking in memory of her," explained her fried Jasmine.
"They also wanted moment of silence at the soccer game and I seen on Facebook, there were a lot of angry kids because they didn't want to give them a moment of silence because the school doesn't condone suicide," said Jasmine's mother, Maria.
The school's principal said dealing with suicides is a difficult and painful balancing act.
"The research tells us that you have to be very careful about memorializing a suicide, so our efforts have been to support the students and to let them know that help is available," she said.
Sheriff Nocco said that help may be exactly what teens in Pasco County need.
"Suicide in our county as we talked about before is high, it's an issue. It's an issue that families deal with, and a young teenager that has her whole life in front of them. It's a community issue," he said.
Ten tips for preventing cyber bullying:
Stop cyber bullying:
Information and resources from the National Crime Prevention Council:
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