The Death of Brandy Vela and the Epidemic of Cyberbullying

“SHE HAD BEAUTIFUL EYES”, says her sister Jacqueline. Brandy Vela indeed had striking blue eyes. They were her most recognizable feature, the one everyone gushed over when they saw photos of Brandy after she posted them to her Facebook page. I’m sure those blue eyes had seen a lot in eighteen years. They likely had reflected the warm glow of lighted candles on a birthday cake, stared at a gorgeous Texas sunset or the blue waters of the Galveston Bay, danced along with the laughter of family, brightened at the sight of a small puppy, welled up while watching a romantic movie, and maybe they had, once or twice, gazed longingly at a cute boy. They also experienced the day when Brandy Vela, standing in front her family who was desperately pleading with her not to, put a gun to her chest and pulled the trigger, ending her own life. Brandy Vela was 18 years old, a senior in high school, and reportedly another casualty of the epidemic of cyberbullying.

Texas City, Texas is a is city of around 50,000 people located on the southwestern shoreline of Galveston Bay. The community is “devastated,” according to Melissa Tortorici, the communications director for the Texas City Independent School District. Blue hearts recently filled the hallways of Brandy’s school, Texas City High School, in her honor.

Brandy’s bedroom, too, was covered with post-it notes that contained small letters to Brandy reading things such as “You’ll always own a piece of my heart,” and “You will never be forgotten.” It’s in this bedroom where I would imagine Brandy did her homework, listened to music, chatted with her friends, giggled with her siblings, and thought about her future. It’s also a place where she may have received harassing messages on her cellphone, and endured, what her family has called relentless bullying due to her appearance; it is ultimately the place where, on Tuesday of last week, she would take her own life.

Brandy’s father Raul Vela told KHOU-TV that the harassment had been going on for over a year. He says they used her photo, wrote nasty things about her, and even created online profiles of her soliciting sex.

“They would make dating websites of her, and they would put her number” Jacqueline Vela, the 22-year-old sister of Brandy told KRPC-TV. “They would put her picture and lie about her age and say she’s giving herself up for sex for free, to call her.”

The profiles would be taken down, only to reappear. She also received harassing phone messages, according to Raul Vela.

The incidents had been reported to authorities but the harassment continued, according to Brandy’s family.  Tortorici told The Galveston County Daily News that Vela had talked to a school administrator about the messages she had received before the Thanksgiving break.

“Our deputy investigated it and the app that was being used to send the messages was untraceable,” Tortorici said. “We encouraged her to change her phone number.”

The Texas City Police are currently investigating this case.

In November, legislators inside the Texas State Capital filed “David’s Law” (.pdf) to help stem cyberbullying in the state. Among other things, the bill seeks to make it a misdemeanor to use digital tools to bully anyone under the age of 18. The law seeks to compel school districts to include cyberbullying in their bullying policies and develop a system to anonymously report bullying. It would give school districts more power to investigate off-campus threats if they relate to on-campus situations, and allow law enforcement, through subpoenas, “to unmask anonymous social media users who send threatening messages or make threatening posts.” The bill is named for David Molak, a San Antonio teenager who killed himself in January after what his family says was prolonged bullying that included the use of digital tools.

vela

I love you so much just remember that please and I’m so sorry for everything.

ABOVE ARE THE WORDS that Brandy would write in the last text message to her family. The message spurred members of her family to rush home where they reportedly found Brandy standing in her bedroom with a gun in her hand. Despite their desperate pleas, Brandy pointed the gun into her chest and pulled the trigger.

We know far from all the facts in this case, and I’m sure we will learn more in time. There are still unanswered questions. In any case, if this young lady felt threatened, harassed, or bullied, then we failed her. And I mean by WE, all of us, as a digital society.

As our daily lives become more integrated with technology, digital tools are playing an increasingly important role in every aspect of our lives. We can’t live without these tools. They are becoming our connection to the world and our connection to each other. When we, as a digital society, fail to properly mature, the consequences are not virtual, they are very, very real; they directly impact and are felt severely by our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, and our grandchildren, the very future of our society.

A 2016 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center estimates a staggering 33.8% of 12-17-year-old middle and high school students in the United States have been the victim of cyberbullying. Let me say that again: over a third of 12-17-year-old middle and high school students in the United States have been the victim of cyberbullying. This is past being a problem. This has become an epidemic.

Why is this different than regular bullying? An Indian burn fades and a wedgie can be untightened, but digital attacks are not as easily overcome. This is especially true when the attacks come barreling into living rooms and bedrooms. The author also believes there is a distinct difference between a schoolyard fight and the creation of a fake dating profile that promises sex.

As the elders of a digital society, what are we to do? Are we going to take away smartphones and Snapchats? That’s not the right answer. Taking away or forbidding our children technology would put them at a disadvantage in the future and would overwhelm them when they are allowed the use of these technologies. Imagine if you never tasted chocolate until you were eighteen. When you were offered your first bite of chocolate, how would you react? You would likely gorge yourself, because you’ve never learned the dangers of not eating chocolate in moderation. Imagine if that chocolate was instead some rather stimulating photos or videos now easily accessible on the World Wide Web or the recent freedom to create a profile on a social network. Let’s be honest, we all know some very mature adults who could use a few lessons in what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to newly created Facebook pages.

Digital tools have become such a key factor in social interaction. Prohibiting our children the use of these tools might inadvertently hinder social growth.

Are we going to monitor every post, text message, and website visit? That’s virtually impossible, especially now with apps like Snapchat that have messages that “disappear” after reading. Monitoring use is important, but there is only so much hovering that is healthy or even possible.

These questions are posed solely to raise debate. I will not, under any circumstances, tell someone how to raise their children. I’m not a parent and the closest I’ve come to raising a child was that one night I babysat my one-year-old niece. I won’t pretend to sit here and say I know anything about rearing a small human.

I am, however, a child of the internet. One day, when I was in that vulnerable stage between childhood and mature adolescence, a box appeared in my living room. This box gave me a view into a new world. Suddenly everything was at my fingertips. I was abruptly, and quite dramatically, exposed to so much knowledge, information, and visual stimulation. Much of it was good; much of it was bad. I could, with the click of a mouse, explore either.

My new home computer, with dial-up internet, did not come with a manual teaching my parents how to protect their child on his unexpected journey through cyberspace. Despite every ounce of the tons of love, discipline, and wisdom they imparted on me, raising a child in the digital age was probably an unexpected vocation.

How do we teach our children to navigate technologies we understand about as well as, or less than, they do? How do we, as a digital society, prepare our youth for a future that we can’t yet see and is coming faster than we can possibly anticipate?

Adapting to the increasing speed of technology innovation will become more difficult. It won’t get easier. There is no manual, and there never will be.

I will say this. We need to listen. It is difficult for us to allow ourselves to become pupils to our youth. But we must listen to them. We will only grow if we open our ears, and I mean all of us: parents and teachers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, lawmakers and law enforcement.

Brandy Vela’s blue eyes were, according to her family, harvested, along with many other of her organs, and donated to people who will use them to carry on with lives of their own. Brandy’s family hopes to one day meet the person who received Brandy’s blue eyes. God willing, those eyes will see more birthday parties, more smiles, more laughter, more flowers, and more sunshine. Hopefully they will never again experience the senseless heartbreak and pain that Brandy Vela endured in a life that ended in such desperate tragedy and so miserably short.

 

 

 

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