Channing Smith was a Manchester, Tennessee, student who died by suicide after a classmate posted personal messages between the 16-year-old and another boy. Channing took his own life sometime between September 22 and September 23 after his intimate Facebook conversations were made public on Instagram and Snapchat.
Channing’s girlfriend, Hailey Meister, and his half-brother, Joshua Smith, 38, said he had not identified as bi-sexual or discussed his sexuality with family or friends. “Nobody deserves to die as they are figuring their way through this complex journey called life,” Joshua said during his brother’s memorial service.
Friend Keylee Duty revealed the bullying had started long before Channing was outed. Kids at school would tell Channing “no one liked him” because he sometimes “talked in a girly voice and walked with sass,” she told Buzzfeed.
“Just because you think it’s cute or funny to make somebody embarrassed or humiliate them, think again,” Crystal Smith, Channing’s mother, said.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Channing Smith’s Text Messages Were Exposed After a Fight With a Friend
According to family and friends, Channing got into a fight with a girl who discovered the messages and posted screenshots of his conversations for revenge. “She was just doing it to be mean,” Duty said.
On the night of his death, Channing returned home around 10 p.m. after getting off of work at Burger King, and then frantically started calling friends when he discovered his texts had been posted. Later that night, Channing sent his final Instagram message. “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,” he wrote.
Channing’s father discovered his son’s body around 4 a.m. when he saw the light was still on in the boy’s room. Lacking an explanation for Channing’s death, Joshua began reaching out to the boy’s friends. Within hours he learned what had caused his half-brother so much pain.
According to Joshua, there was no way Channing could have offered an alternative explanation for the messages. “They were graphic texts and there was no room for Channing to be able to claim it was a misunderstanding.”
2. The Smith Family Said They Met With Resistance When They Asked the District Attorney to Investigate Channing’s Death
Joshua said the family met with resistance when they asked the Coffee County District Attorney’s Office to investigate the incidents that led up to Channing’s death. According to Joshua, an investigator working with District Attorney Craig Northcott’s office told him they weren’t sure the messages were actually posted on social media, local law enforcement didn’t have the technical ability to access the phones of the kids who’d harassed Channing, and that the D.A.’s office “didn’t want to touch [the case].”
The prosecutor issued a statement disputing that claim. “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.”
When media outlets started reporting that Northcott’s office was unlikely to take action, the prosecutor said an investigation would take about 30 days to complete. “I’m giving [Northcott] a chance to tell me now, because if he doesn’t, I’m getting ready to start the biggest social-media s—storm this town has ever seen, and I’m filing lawsuits on anyone and everyone that has touched this,” Joshua said.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has received complaints about Northcott and more than 200 Nashville attorneys asked the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility to investigate the prosecutor after he called Islam “an evil belief system” and a video surfaced of Northcott explaining that he didn’t want to prosecute same-sex domestic violence cases. “The reason that there’s enhanced punishment on domestic violence is to recognize and protect the sanctity of marriage. And I said there’s no marriage to protect. So I don’t prosecute them as domestics.”
3. Smith’s Family is Advocating for Anti-Cyberbullying Legislation Called “Channing’s Law”
Channing’s family is seeking to push for legislation they’d call “Channing’s Law” that would establish penalties for cyberbullying.
The Smiths also hope to raise awareness about the issue of suicide. On the night of his death, Channing told a friend that he wanted to kill himself but the friend disregarded the comment, thinking Channing was feeling better toward the end of their conversation. “So I just want to tell people if someone says [they are going to commit suicide], follow-through, report it, don’t let it go,” Joshua said.
Since Channing’s death, family members and friends have been educating their community about the cruelty of cyberbullying and suicide prevention. Students from the highly conservative community are now using #JusticeForChanning on social media and made t-shirts with the hashtag. In the future, Joshua would like to see app kids could use if they are contemplating suicide and need help.
4. Channing’s High School Told Students To Take Off Their #JusticeForChanning T-Shirts
While many of the students have been proactively spreading awareness about cyberbullying and teen suicide, Joshua said the high school failed to acknowledge Channing’s death.
When students attended the homecoming rally wearing #JusticeForChanning T-Shirts and holding posters, Coffee County Central High School administrators made them take the shirts off and put the posters away. Joshua said the principal took things a step further when he suggested a more subdued tone for Channing’s memorial service. “The principal told my father that he felt like we would not want anything at our memorial service that says Justice for Channing, which was total bullshit,” Joshua said.
On September 30, one week after Channing’s death, NBC reported that Coffee County Schools Director Charles Lawson said counseling would be made available to students and staff and that a legal investigation into the events leading up to Channing’s death was underway.
5. Singer Billy Ray Cyrus Sang at Channing Smith’s Memorial Service
Channing Smith’s family found a friend and advocate in singer Billy Ray Cyrus. In an effort to address cyberbullying and suicide, Cyrus has shared Channing’s story several times on social media.
On September 29, Cyrus and his bandmates attended Channing’s memorial service at Manchester’s Rotary Amphitheater. During the service Cyrus sang Amazing Grace and Old Town Road. After the performance, Cyrus took Channing’s motorcycle for a ride. “Felt the spirit of this young man in the wind of freedom yesterday in Manchester, TN,” he wrote.