A Tennessee teenager took his own life after being outed on social media as being bisexual, his family said.
Channing Smith, 16, died by suicide last Sunday after a schoolmate allegedly posted to social media at large private and explicit messages he and another boy exchanged on Instagram and Snapchat, his older brother Joshua Smith told BuzzFeed News.
Channing had not openly discussed his sexuality or identified as LGBTQ, Joshua and Channing’s girlfriend told the news site.
“They were graphic texts and there was no room for Channing to be able to claim it was a misunderstanding,” Joshua said.
After seeing that his private conversation with another teen had been allegedly posted online, Channing reportedly called others about the screenshots, “freaking out,” his brother said.
He then posted online himself, writing on Instagram, “I’m gonna get off social media for a while. I really hate how I can’t trust anyone because those I did were so fake. Bye.”
Before he died, Channing reportedly called a girl and told her that he wanted to kill himself, his brother said.
“She said at the end of the call he seemed OK so she didn’t tell anyone and my brother followed through on that,” Joshua said. “So I just want to tell people if someone says that, follow through, report it, don’t let it go.”
His father discovered his body, Channing’s brother said.
“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 said. “He’s still in shock.”
Channing had allegedly argued with the teen who posted the screenshots, schoolmate Keylee Duty told BuzzFeed. That teen was close to the boy with whom Channing exchanged the messages.
“She was just doing it to be mean,” Keylee said.
Keylee has since founded the group Justice for Channing and helped organize a memorial for the teen.
“Channing would be bowled over if he saw this. He didn’t even think anybody liked him,” Channing’s mother, Crystal Smith, said during Thursday’s vigil at Fred Deadman Park in Manchester.
Channing had been bullied before the alleged attack on social media, according to Keylee, who said he was called names and made to feel like he was disliked because he sometimes “talked in a girly voice and walked with sass.”
The community in which Channing lived would likely have been a hard one to come out as not straight in, Joshua said.
“Being in a small, rural town in the middle of Tennessee, you can imagine being the laughingstock and having to go to school Monday morning,” Joshua told WZTV. “He couldn’t face the humiliation that was waiting on him when he got to school Monday.”
Channing’s family and friends have called on authorities to file charges in connection to the bullying they said led to his death, as Joshua said he believes officials are inadequately responding to his brother’s death and the underlying context.
"I can assure you, your school hopes you forget, your town hopes you forget,” Joshua told the crowd at Sunday’s memorial. “But we’re not going to let that happen. … Action is going to be taken. We don’t get Channing back, that’s done, can’t go backward. But we can use this incident to create change moving forward.”
District Attorney Craig Northcott said in a statement in response to Channing’s death that his “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,” he continued. “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.”
Northcott also offered his condolences to the Smith family.
"I would ask for everyone to extend their prayers for the family and to respect their privacy as this process moves forward,” he said.
Channing would have turned 17 on Oct. 20.
He was remembered as being smart, funny and caring toward others and their feelings. He loved punk rock music, riding his motorcycle, talking about cars, playing guitar and wanted to be an engineer. He recently started working at Burger King and had proudly sent a photo wearing his uniform to his brother, Joshua told BuzzFeed.
“He was becoming himself,” he said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, help can be found at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free and anonymous crisis support in the U.S. from the Crisis Text Line.