The local district attorney, sheriff's office and Coffee County school officials have come under fire following the suicide of a Manchester, Tennessee, teen whose classmates leaked intimate communications he had with another boy on social media platforms.
Coffee County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Frank Watkins said detectives are investigating allegations that bullying led Channing Smith, 16, to take his own life. Smith was found dead at his home on Sept. 22 hours after the messages were shared on Instagram and Snapchat.
The death devastated the teen's family and his older brother, Joshua Smith, said in a New York Times phone interview Monday that his brother "was absolutely humiliated." He described the messages as "very explicit."
Attempts to reach Joshua Smith on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Watkins said the specter of cyberbullying arose at the very beginning.
"I think it was that same day," Watkins said of Channing Smith being found dead. "They received the information [about bullying] from his brother."
In the days since the tragedy, Joshua Smith has blasted school officials and repeatedly called out 14th Judicial District Attorney General Craig Northcott on his handling of the case. He told media outlets he was told by a Coffee County investigator that Northcott directed investigators not to pursue an investigation, according to reports from last week.
Northcott since has disputed those allegations in a statement, saying he was "deeply saddened by the tragic loss of the young life of Channing Smith. I express my heartfelt condolences to this family." Northcott said an investigation into the death had been launched.
Smith family members have expressed fears that Northcott is "anti-gay" and wouldn't pursue the case.
Northcott has been under fire after since a 2018 video of him saying domestic violence charges have more built-in punishments than other assault crimes — such as losing the right to a firearm — to protect the sanctity of marriage. But with same-sex unions, he said, "there's no marriage to protect. So I don't prosecute them as domestics."
More than 300 Tennessee lawyers have signed an open letter calling on the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility to investigate Northcott for the "highest level of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of discretion."
Shortly afterward, the board confirmed it opened an investigation into Northcott's comments about same-sex couples, as well as some anti-Islamic comments he posted to social media, the Associated Press reported.
Northcott has also been criticized for comments he made on Facebook, writing that Islam is "evil, violent and against God's truth," and he likened being Muslim to "being part of the KKK, Aryan Nation, etc." He was responding to a Republican candidate's post.
A complaint filed on Aug. 27 argues that Northcott violated at least two rules of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Responsibility.
But in a recent statement about the approach in Channing Smith's death, Northcott said an investigation is moving forward, and that "[a]ny 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."
Northcott says he can't talk about an open investigation or prosecution and that "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 ... "
If you’re having thoughts of suicide or are a victim of bullying of any kind there are resources to find help and advice.
* National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 (TALK) or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
* The Trevor Project at www.thetrevorproject.org offers help for LGBTQ teens and young adults in crisis
* stopbullying.gov is the U.S. Government website that offers resources for information, national statistics and other imporant information about bullying in all forms.
Watkins said he couldn't talk about who has been interviewed so far or what interviews are still pending.
Detectives are "taking everything from what they've collected through interviews and what they're able to gather through electronic means," he said. The evidence will be analyzed and reviewed with Northcott, he said.
It's the first-time the department has probed such a case, and investigators are moving at a deliberate pace, Watkins said. Officers in recent years have undergone considerable training in how to investigate incidents with links to the cyberworld, and how to extract information from electronic devices and track down original online sources.
"We have not had anything like that here that had any kind of nexus to cyberbullying," he said.
According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is defined as "unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time."
While most reported bullying happens in the school building, according to the site, a significant percentage also happens in places such as on the playground or the bus. Bullying can also happen traveling to or from school, in the neighborhood, or online.
Cyberbullying includes sending, posting or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else, the site states. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation, in some cases crossing the line into unlawful or criminal behavior, the site states. Most states have anti-bullying legislation, but bullying itself is not illegal.
Tennessee law covers bullying situations under criminal harassment and hazing statutes, defines various types of bullying, including cyberbullying, but the law doesn't provide protections for specific groups, according to the site. School systems are required to adopt policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation by bullying or cyberbullying, and to make information about bullying issues available to students and parents.
The family has been critical of the school system for the way it has dealt with the incident, and posts on social media blast school officials for the lack of a memorial to Channing Smith on school and system websites and for being uncooperative with students who wanted to call attention to the 16-year-old's death and bullying.
Calls Wednesday to the Coffee County Schools' main office requesting comment were not returned.
Coffee County Schools Director Charles Lawson previously said 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, according to a New York Times account published Wednesday. "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."
Joshua Smith in an interview on CNN likened cyberbullying to a weapon, and Watkins at the Coffee County Sheriff's Office agreed.
Watkins said investigators recognize that the family wants answers and closure.
"We know they're upset about the suspected bullying and they're upset that somebody would do this to the point that it would possibly drive a child to [suicide], and who can blame them?" Watkins said.
"Unfortunately, children can be cruel. A lot of children don't have an idea of what repercussions can come from being mean and throwing something out to the world," he said.
"They don't understand the repercussions are almost like a firearm — once you pull the trigger that bullet's gone," Watkins said. "Once you say those words, those words are out there and you can't bring them back, like you can't bring that bullet back.
"The old adage of stick and stones can break your bones but words will never hurt you is not true anymore," he said. "With the advent of social media, words do indeed hurt, and words can lead to death, and people need to be aware of that and people need to be held responsible for their actions."
"The damage has been done and now it's down to getting to the bottom of who's responsible," Watkins said.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.