Her family blames her classmates for her death, but now some of them are questioning that narrative. What really happened the week before Audrie died?
Last Labor Day weekend, 15-year-old Audrie Pott went to a small party thrown by one of her classmates at Saratoga High School, a small suburban public school sandwiched between Apple headquarters and Big Basin's redwood forest in Northern California. Audrie and her friends drank Gatorade and alcohol that evening, but after a while, Audrie began to feel like she'd had too much, and she went upstairs to sleep in an empty bedroom.
What happened next has become the subject of countless international headlines and left behind grieving family and friends, and yet it took seven months, thirteen confiscated cell phones, and three arrest warrants for Audrie's parents to finally conclude why their bubbly, witty teenage daughter who loved art and soccer committed suicide a week after the party by hanging herself in her parents' bathroom: She was sexually assaulted by her friends, then aggressively cyberbullied by her classmates while an indifferent school administration refused to intervene.
It's become vogue to decry and denounce cyberbullying — the public persecution of someone via social media. This popular cause not only seems a collective catharsis for those concerned by the expanding digital intrusion into individual privacy, but the issue also couples the hot topics of sexuality and the internet.
The tragic story of Audrie Pott has become the latest to gain traction in this narrative of web bullying pushing young people over the edge. Audrie's family, after retracing their deceased daughter's digital footprints, is convinced she was driven to self-destruction by the mass online circulation of sexually explicit photos of her. "With no assault, with no cyberbullying, Audrie is in art class right now," Larry Pott, Audrie's father, told reporters shortly after the family decided to go public with Audrie's story.
But now their narrative is being called into question by many of her classmates and by dozens of interviews conducted as part of an ongoing investigation by Audrie's school newspaper. These student reporters claim that the photos in question hardly went viral and may have been seen by only a few people. They further contend that an overemphasis on cyberbullying is overshadowing a much more fundamental aspect of this case: sexual assault.
Nearly a year after it happened, Audrie's death raises more questions than it answers. Are her grief-stricken parents ginning up a catchphrase cause of digital danger where it doesn't exist? Or are Audrie's former classmates engaging in a teenage version of omertà, a refusal to rat one another out for leering at and forwarding a set of pics that literally drove Audrie to hang herself?
"We have no idea how many photos were taken that night or the exact number of people who may have seen them," says Samuel Liu, a Saratoga High junior and student reporter, who, along with his colleagues, has conducted over 50 interviews with classmates on behalf of The Saratoga Falcon, the student-run newspaper.
What doesn't seem up for dispute is that something bad happened to Audrie at that party. According to the Pott's family attorney, Robert Allard, after Audrie went to lie down, three boys followed her. Allard says the young men committed "unimaginable" acts on Audrie while she was unconscious. When she awoke the next morning, she found her shorts had been taken off and one of the boys had scribbled his name in black marker followed by "was here" on her body.
One or more of her attackers took pictures of the assault and distributed the photos via text and email. At school that Monday — the first week of her sophomore year — Audrie saw clumps of students huddled over their cell phones in the hallways, laughing and gawking at her. The photos spread through the school "like wildfire," Allard told reporters at a recent press conference. "The whole school knew."
A week later, Sheila Pott knocked on her bathroom door to make sure Audrie was all right. Earlier that afternoon, Audrie had called Sheila pleading to be picked up early from school.
"I can't do this anymore," Audrie had said.