Teens: Cyberbullying a rampant ‘school’ problem

Audrie's mom, Sheila Potts (second from left), her stepmother Lisa (third from left) and father Larry (fourth from left) held a press conference today in San Jose.

In the wake of the shocking details surrounding the arrest of a Christopher High School student Thursday, three 16-year-old boys now face felony charges of sexual battery and are named as defendants in a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court.

Meanwhile, parents of 15-year-old Audrie Pott – the Saratoga High School student who tragically took her own life eight days after the alleged assault – are searching for answers as to why their daughter is no longer with them and demanding adult consequences for those accused of violating her.

“These types of crimes are not juvenile. Sexual assault is an adult crime,” said Audrie’s mom, Sheila Pott. “These boys distributed pictures to humiliate and further bully my daughter. If this can happen to my daughter, it can happen to anyone.”

The incident sheds a bright light on a prevalent epidemic among students growing up with Facebook, Twitter, iPhones and text messaging: Cyberbullying.

“Cyberbullying is becoming a problem at not only Sobrato, but our community,” said Michael Altamirano, Associated Student Body President at Ann Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill. “Students that are bullied look to suicide as an escape.”

Pott’s “escape” and her parents’ willingness to offer their daughter’s name (despite her being a minor) and explicit details of the alleged sexual assault have ignited a national media storm, which touched down in Gilroy last week when a first-year transfer student and sophomore football player was arrested on the CHS campus.

Almost simultaneously, two Saratoga High School male students were arrested April 11 by Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies. Now, all three 16-year-olds must answer questions as to their roles in the Sept. 2, 2012 attack on Pott at an unsupervised house party where the boys allegedly removed her clothing, drew on her body near intimate areas, penetrated her with foreign objects and sexually abused her while she was unconscious.

Pott hung herself eight days later after photos of the assault circulated among classmates through text messaging and “other electronic means,” according to the wrongful death complaint.

“Kids can be pretty brutal. I’ve dealt with a lot of bullying,” said Austin Corini, a 16-year-old CHS junior known for performing last year on the TV show “X-Factor.”

Citing Audrie Pott’s Facebook page, her stepmother Lisa Pott said there were messages stating: “My life is ruined,” “I can’t do anything to fix it,” and “I have a reputation for a night I don’t even remember and the whole school knows.”

The three teenage boys made their first appearance Tuesday in Santa Clara County Juvenile Court. Since juvenile proceedings are not public, it is not yet known whether the three minors were released into the custody of their parents. After the appearance, Deputy DA Jaron Shipp would not comment about the hearing beyond describing the juvenile judicial process.

In cases of sexual assault while the victim was intoxicated and incapacitated, the DA’s office may make a motion before the juvenile court judge for the defendants to be evaluated for their fitness to be charged as adults. The probation department then has up to 30 days to deliver a report to the court. The findings of that report could be subsequently contested by the DA’s office.

All three accused students, as well as Pott, hung out with the same circle of friends at Saratoga High at the time of the alleged sexual assault. One of those accused students transferred to CHS in the weeks following the alleged assault.

While Sheriff’s deputies offered little information about the “ongoing investigation,” the Pott family provided details at a press conference Monday in San Jose. They confirmed Audrie was at an unsupervised house party with about 10 to 15 friends, drank too much and passed out in a bedroom.

A wrongful death claim against the three accused minors, who have been given the aliases “John B,” “John R,” and “John G,” was also filed Monday by attorney Robert Allard, who represents the Pott family. This is a separate civil case which also lists Michael and Sheila Penuen as defendants, the parents of the student who hosted the party. The Pott family is seeking damages in excess of $25,000.

Audrie’s mother Sheila said she thought her daughter tried to reach out to some of her friends about what had happened, but did not confide in any adults.

“I think if she did, she would still be with us,” said Sheila. “This was never on our radar.”

Even when Audrie called her mother from school earlier in the day Sept. 10 and said she “couldn’t do it anymore,” Sheila did not grasp the seriousness of their conversation.

“I asked her, ‘What’s wrong? You can tell me,’” said Sheila, describing the final conversation with her daughter. “She just said, ‘I can’t do this. I’ve been doing it for two years mom and I can’t do it anymore.’”

Sheila recalled pleading with her daughter to “just make it through one more day” and that she would “be there in just a couple of hours.”

According to the Pott family, the three suspects have a long, troubled history that will be brought to light and that the accused were sober during the assault on their unconscious friend who they knew since middle school.

“They have a reputation. Believe me, that will come out,” proclaimed Audrie’s father Larry Pott. “They have a very long, bad, sordid reputation.”

At Christopher High, however, students who befriended their accused schoolmate characterized him as “a nice guy” and “a happy kid.”

“I never would have thought he’d be accused of something like that,” said 16-year-old CHS teammate Anthony who asked that his last name not be used. “He was like our brother.”

Fellow CHS teammate Raul Tovar III shared those sentiments.

“My parents loved him,” added Tovar III, also a close friend. “My friend talked to his father and he said that he is not guilty of what he’s being accused of. So, I take his word.”

CHS Principal John Perales said the student “was doing well” in his classes and “was very well-liked.”

Perales said he had no idea about the issue with the student until a Sheriff’s deputy arrived on campus Thursday morning with Gilroy Police Department School Resource Officer Pat Sullivan. Perales said he didn’t learn the whole story until staff members contacted him after school hours and informed him of the media storm.

“It really saddened me when I heard the news around 5 o’clock,” Perales said.

However, the growing epidemic of cyberbullying among high school students is something Perales and his staff are well aware of. It was the subject of a lengthy presentation and discussion a year ago when Perales and other school staff addressed the issue during an April 12, 2012 school board meeting.

“Cyber harassment is a huge issue for us that spills onto our campus almost daily,” said Perales during the meeting. “It’s rare that a week goes by that we don’t see a harassment issue.”

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