Channing Smith, a 16-year-old junior at Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, Tenn., died by suicide on Sept. 22 after classmates outed him as LGBTQ on social media by sharing screenshots of intimate text messages he sent to another boy.
The two classmates — the boy who received the messages and a girl, according to the New York Daily News — posted the screenshots of the messages on Instagram and Snapchat.
His older brother, Joshua Smith, told Fox17 Nashville he received a call from his father early Monday morning, telling him Channing had taken his own life. Joshua Smith told Fox he reached out to his brother’s friends to find a possible reason, and they told him about the messages that outed him as either gay or bisexual, “to just completely embarrass and humiliate my brother.”
“Being a small rural town in the middle of Tennessee, you can just imagine being the laughingstock of having to go to school Monday morning, and he couldn’t face the humiliation that was waiting on him when he got to school on Monday,” Joshua said in the report.
Two days after Channing’s death, Joshua Smith posted on Facebook about the tragedy.
“I want to use my platform and influence to let any young person reading this to please use your compassion and love to help others, build them up,” he said in the post.
Before taking his own life, Channing posted an image of a black screen with the words, “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.”
Hailey Meister, who spoke to BuzzFeed News, said she was dating Channing for about a month before he died. She said the screenshots were of old messages and that the other students posted them just to humiliate him.
“He was kind and loving and a very good person,” Meister told Buzzfeed.
She said when the messages appeared on social media, he told her “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.”
Channing’s family held a service for him on Sunday. The news of his death caught the attention of country musician Billy Ray Cyrus, who traveled to Manchester to perform at the service. He wore a white shirt with the words “#JusticeForChanning” on it and sang “Amazing Grace” — Channing’s favorite song — with Channing’s father.
He posted a video clip of the performance on Twitter with the hashtag #JusticeForChanning.
— Billy Ray Cyrus (@billyraycyrus) September 29, 2019
Channing’s community also held a vigil for him on Thursday. Though his family and friends remembered him as a loving boy who liked music, cars and riding his motorcycle and hated algebra, the vigil also was a call to action.
“Just because you think it’s cute or funny to make somebody embarrassed or humiliate them, think again,” Crystal Smith, Channing’s mother, said at the vigil, WTVF reported. “Because if somebody would have realized that, my son would not be dead.”
Though social media was used by bullies to humiliate Channing, it is also being used as a tool to advocate for justice.
Students created a Justice for Channing Facebook group. Billy Ray Cyrus also tweeted the hashtag, saying “Enough is enough.”
My heart breaks for Channing, his family, his friends and the community. This is the saddest story. You have to read this. Enough is enough. #JusticeForChanning https://t.co/TT99ULd8I1 https://t.co/tf3s6nGZ49 pic.twitter.com/ooPgAj1LgP
— Billy Ray Cyrus (@billyraycyrus) September 28, 2019
Joshua continued to tell his brother’s story in a Facebook post titled “Being gay should not be a death sentence.”
According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at nearly three times the rate of heterosexual youth and attempt it at nearly five times the rate of heterosexual youth.
Channing’s death is also raising controversy in the Nashville suburb as the family seeks to file criminal charges against the bullies who posted the screenshots online.
District Attorney Craig Northcott came under fire after a 2018 video of him surfaced, in which he said he did not recognize “homosexual marriage” and thus would not prosecute same-sex domestic violence cases.
Joshua said in a WZTV interview that he was told Northcott decided the district attorney’s office did not want to pursue the case to have the two bullies charged criminally, however, Northcott released a statement disputing the claims, saying he had not yet taken action because the investigation was still ongoing.
Joshua also accused the high school of not taking action, telling BuzzFeed News the administration had not publicly acknowledged the suicide. Additionally, some students tried to rally for Channing by wearing “Justice for Channing” T-shirts and holding signs at a homecoming rally, but the principal made them take off the shirts and put away the posters, according to the Washington Post.
At Sunday’s memorial service, Joshua spoke, pledging to not let the community forget the suicide.
“I can assure you, your school hopes you forget, your town hopes you forget,” Smith said. “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.”
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).