What We Can Learn From the Tragic Death of Audrie Pott

In 2010, Santa Clara County had the fifth-highest rate of adolescent self-inflicted injuries in the state. Suicide is the third leading cause of death here for youth ages 15-19. And from 1991-2010, there were 3,317 attempted suicides in the county, leading to numerous hospitalizations and 114 suicidal deaths for our 10-19 year olds.

A 15-year old high school student’s death became an international story last week. Social media, sexual violence and alcohol are at the center of the storm once again.

Audrie Pott, a Saratoga High School sophomore, was at an unsupervised party on Labor Day weekend 2012, when she allegedly became unconscious after drinking Gatorade and vodka. The local media have reported that while unconscious or asleep, Audrie was sexually molested by three Saratoga High School boys. Pictures posted on social media of the assault were disseminated at school shortly after the party leading to her suicide, according to Robert Allard, attorney for Audrie’s family. She took her own life in September of last year.

After a seven-month investigation, three boys were arrested Thursday. The boys’ attorneys said in a statement that the suicide had nothing to do with their clients. On Monday, Audrie’s parents held a news conference at a San Jose Hotel to speak publicly about their daughter’s unnecessarily abbreviated life for the first time.

There are a myriad of lessons we can learn in this tragedy, along with steps schools, districts and families can consider to prevent these incidents from occurring in the future. Below I have set out some steps that can be taken:

1. Unsupervised parties where there is underage drinking or drug use must be an open topic of discussion on all high school campuses. Parents and students must know the laws and facts as they relate to underage drinking, and the possible consequences. Parent and student forums must be held regularly to discuss the serious nature of the issue. Lawyers, educators, law enforcement professionals, students and parents must set the agenda and message for each forum.

2. Ninth-grade students must be taught the consequences of drinking and the effect it has on particular body weights—on a full and empty stomach—to become unconscious or near unconscious. These kids should be taught that mixing certain alcohol with mixers like Red Bull can accelerate the effect. In my experience, students lack the basic information on these physiological factors. These lessons must be interwoven throughout science and physical education classes in systemic ways throughout all four years of high school.

3. Built into the curriculum must be annual presentations and discussions on the ethical use of social media. All students and parents must know when social media is being used in unethical and illegal ways. Too often the lack of information makes it easier to do the wrong thing, even if the social media user understands that it crosses a moral line. There must be student discussions about this, along with role-playing and other avenues to sunshine the pervasive existence of immoral, illegal, and unethical behavior on FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, or even the new Snapchat app.

4. Legal consequences for the abuse, unethical and immoral uses of social media must be strengthened. It has been reported that Audrie Pott’s parents are working with U.S. Congressmember Zoe Lofgren and State Senator Jim Beall to address the possibilities of new laws—perhaps named after Audrie—to increase the legal consequences. Education of youth and parents must be at the core. Zero Tolerance and suspensions are not best practice, and they do not lead to a decrease in the aberrant behavior.

5. Schools must conduct quarterly or semi-annual data collections of new norms for behavior and the overall environment. These must go all the way up to the school board for sunshining and discussions. I have heard too many administrators in my career state that these problems do not exist in their district or school. I say WTF to that. They exist in every school and district.

6. The data should lead to specific staff trainings and development courses.

7. Use video, literature, artistic expression and social media campaigns by students to allow for discussions on healthy practices.

8. Make certain that student voices are at the center of strategic discussions. California can no longer be 50th out of 50 states in the school counselor to student ratio. Children, from cradle to career, need someone to talk to and confide in about their life struggles. Audrie Pott’s suicide should become the rallying point for getting us to the nation’s average on the counselor to student ratio.

9. Most times they won’t go to their parents, although parents can be taught how to have substantive conversations about these issues.

One cannot be certain that these nine action plans will prevent physical and online bullying, underage drinking, unsupervised parties, etc. But they might help the kind of tragic events that led to Audrie’s death.  I am convinced that if a comprehensive plan is in place at our high schools in the near future, we can avert future episodes like the tragedy that shook up a family, a high school, a city, a state and a nation.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

4 Comments

  1. In examining Mr. DiSalvo’s nine steps I couldn’t help but marvel at how much new bureaucracy and expense will be required just to attempt to achieve what was once accomplished by that now ancient societal concept called shame.

    Once upon a time, when children were taught to avoid shaming themselves or their families, a properly raised:

    teenager would equate taking liquor from his parent’s cabinet with stealing—and good kids did not steal from their parents.

    teenage girl viewed getting drunk as something done by uncouth boys and indecent girls—and not many would shame themselves and their families by doing so.

    boy saw it to be his duty to defend decent girls, and would view someone taking advantage of an unconscious girl as dishonorable and deserving of a beating. 

    teenager would never shame himself or his family by doing anything to seriously harm a friend, or even an innocent or vulnerable stranger.

    teenager was raised to have a sense of honor, to adhere to the values held sacred by his/her parents, grandparents, etc.

    teenager didn’t take his/her behavioral cues from Hollywood trash peddlers.

    • I don’t know where you grew up, but all of the things that happened to that girl (except for the photographs and technology), I either saw first hand or heard about when I was in high school here in the late 60s and early 70s.

      Kids drank, girls got knocked up, there were stories about at least one girl that got drunk and several boys were rumored to have had their way with her.  Of course the story was that it wasn’t rape, but with the fullness of time, I’m pretty sure it was.

  2. s randall,

    I don’t make a habit of basing my understanding of the world on personal experience alone, but since that’s what you seem to have done here, then I assume you believe what happened to Ms. Pott (minus the photographs and texting) was nothing out of the ordinary, and thus normal teenage behavior (at least insofar as what life has taught you).

    But, of course, the elements of this case, including the fact it’s attracted the attention of the nation, speak strongly against this being anything close to teenage business as usual. Even if we accept the idea that teenagers sometimes steal from their parents, overdose on substances, commit sex crimes, humiliate their friends, and inflict devastating psychological harm, to find a case in which each and every one of these serious misdeeds is present is mind-numbing; proof-positive that something has gone very wrong in our culture.

    But what is that something? I see it as a breakdown in the social fabric, the cultural standards that we as a people accept as moral obligations. When I posted my comment I did so with the understanding that to even acknowledge the role played by American cultural traditions—or to even suggest that such a thing ever existed, would likely attract disagreement. So brainwashed has the educated public become that today there exists the assumption the government not only can do the work once done by culture, but that it can do it better. (If you’d like an example of the power of culture, specifically the use of honor and shame in directing behavior, I direct your attention to the Japanese-Americans, this nation’s most civilized population.)

    Mr. DiSalvo would have us believe his branch of government can, through “cradle to career” counseling, mend our torn social fabric. He is delusional. As evidence, I direct you to the first two of his nine corrective recommendations. To him, teenage drinking is a matter of “laws and facts… and consequences,” along with lessons in the science of intoxication. Not word one about morality, self-respect, or family honor—the traditional deterrents of civilized societies. It used to be that protecting her reputation was the most powerful concern in a young woman’s life. In Mr. DiSalvo’s world, teenage girls should be sent out into the world of booze and boys as if they were no more vulnerable than fleet marines on leave.

    My, how enlightened. It’s enough to make a tattooed feminist belch and raise her beer in salute. Mr. DiSalvo has come to accept something I never will, that being that society should hold girls to the same set of behavioral expectations it does boys, no more, no less. This is the destructive nonsense manufactured at universities and endorsed by the media. Anything less is discriminatory, which may explain why the media has danced so gingerly around the elephant in the newsroom, that being that none of this would have happened were it not for Ms. Pott’s reckless and potentially life-threatening behavior. These days, the suggestion that a rape victim did anything wrong will be immediately perverted into the suggestion that she deserved it.

    The truth is this tragedy is about the very real differences in gender—differences that will persist despite the best efforts of the cultural destroyers. Had it been a teenage boy passed out from liquor and three teenage girls who done the molesting, the boy is unlikely to have been devastated and we wouldn’t be talking about it today. At least that’s my take on the real world, but I’m sure things work differently in the gender neutral world of Mr. DiSalvo.

  3. If you’d like an example of the power of culture, specifically the use of honor and shame in directing behavior, I direct your attention to the Japanese-Americans, this nation’s most civilized population.

    Isn’t Shirakawa a Japanese name?

    Anyway, I thought your point was that something changed, and I was refuting that.  I said that things really haven’t changed.  I think we can do something to make things better though.  Hazing used to be much more common in school.  I’m inclined to believe that we can do better.