On the night of Sunday, Sept. 22, Channing Smith, 16, saw that private, sexually explicit messages between himself and a male classmate had been posted to Instagram and Snapchat. Within hours, Channing was dead, having taken his own life. His family says the cyberbullying is to blame; the Tennessee high school junior hadn't come out as bisexual or publicly identified as a member of the LGBTQ community. The messages that were posted "were graphic ... and there was no room for Channing to be able to claim it was a misunderstanding," his older brother, Joshua Smith, tells BuzzFeed News. Channing called a few friends around 10pm in a panic. At 4am, his father got up and noticed his light was still on; he walked into the bedroom and found his son's body. More on the tragedy:
- Final Instagram post: "I'm gonna get off social media for awhile. I really hate how I can't trust anyone because those I did were so fake. Bye," Channing posted on Instagram Sunday, according to the Washington Post; it was his last post on the social media site before his death.
- Cause of death: In a Facebook post about the tragedy, Joshua Smith says his brother fatally shot himself. In a subsequent post titled "Being gay shouldn't be a death sentence," he added, "Parents... please have difficult conversations with your kids. I know I did. My wife and I told my son that if he turns out to be gay we would love him no matter what. Kids need to know that there’s nothing on this earth that separate them from the love of the Father or from their earthly parents. We are called to love and support."
- "Stereotypical" hometown: Joshua Smith tells BuzzFeed that while their dad wouldn't have disowned Channing, "being gay or anything like that would have been a hard conversation." He says being outed as gay in Channing's "stereotypical small, Southern town" would have been devastating for the teen. He adds, to FOX 17, "He couldn't face the humiliation that was waiting on him when he got to school on Monday."
- His girlfriend's take: Channing had been dating Hailey Meister for about a month before the incident, and the 17-year-old tells BuzzFeed the messages were old. When they hit social media, she says he talked to her about "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."
- Why? According to a fellow junior at Channing's school, Keylee Duty, Channing got into an argument with a girl who was friends with the boy who had sexted with Channing. She was upset she hadn't previously known about the messages, Duty says, and posted screenshots "just ... to be mean." Meister agrees, saying they were posted solely "to humiliate him." Duty also says Channing had previously been bullied because he sometimes "talked in a girly voice and walked with sass."
- Justice for Channing: Duty started a group called Justice for Channing, and family members are calling for District Attorney Craig Northcott to prosecute those involved in the cyberbullying, News Channel 5 reports. But Joshua Smith says the DA's office hasn't done enough, and multiple news outlets note Northcott has previously made controversial statements, like saying he doesn't support same-sex marriage and refusing to prosecute same-sex domestic violence cases.
- DA's response: In a statement, Northcott said he is "deeply saddened" by the tragedy, and that "my office has encouraged, cooperated in, and supported the investigation into the events leading to this death," which is still open. "Any report that my office has failed or refused to act is inaccurate."
- School under fire: Joshua Smith, Duty, and others are also criticizing Channing's school, Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, for allegedly making students who were wearing "Justice for Channing" T-shirts at a homecoming rally Friday change their clothes and put away their "Justice for Channing" posters. "They haven't made any mention about him or his death on their website, on Facebook, anywhere," Joshua Smith says. "They haven't offered counseling to the kids or gathered them to talk about anti-bullying." Adds Duty, "We believe the school refused to do anything because what happened to Channing involved gay rights."
- School's response: Coffee County Schools Director Charles Lawson told CNN, per the Hill, that counseling was offered and says "a legal investigation is being conducted that involves some of our students."
- Celebrity involvement: The tragedy got the attention of Billy Ray Cyrus, who, according to Joshua Smith's Facebook page, appeared at a Sunday memorial service for Channing to sing "Amazing Grace," and was even pictured riding the motorcycle Channing loved.
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