Police say criminal charges have been brought against a juvenile in Michigan after an 11-year-old boy killed himself following what the boy’s mother claims was a social media prank.
There were no signs.
In the busy household of Katrina Goss, a single mother of three sons in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, all seemed normal on the afternoon of March 14.
Her middle son, 11-year-old Tysen Benz, came home from school feeling proud because he had gone to tutoring on his own that day, Goss recalls.
Later that day, the two baked brownies and then Tysen went up to his room, where his mom presumed he was watching TV or playing on his phone.
But when Goss went upstairs to tuck her son into bed, her world went dark.
Tysen had hanged himself, apparently because his 13-year-old girlfriend allegedly faked her death. The online prank led to criminal charges this week against the 8th-grade girl who prosecutors believe crossed a line.
“I think she deserves the highest punishment that she can get for her age,” Goss, 41, told the Free Press on Friday, saying she lost an amazing kid who had everything going for him. “He wasn’t lonely” or without friends, she said. “He was the absolute opposite of that. He played hockey, travel soccer, golf. He was an excellent bike rider.”
But he lost it all because of a bully, Goss said.
“Even when you’re young you can still commit a crime,” Goss said. “She’s intelligent. She knows right from wrong. She’s 13. She took advantage of a little 11-year-old. I feel like she deserves the full extent of punishment for her age.”
Goss added: “I don’t even think it’s a prank. I think it’s bullying.”
The girl, who is not named, has been charged with telecommunication services-malicious use and using a computer to commit a crime, which carries a maximum punishment of one year in jail. According to authorities, it was the hoax — making a false report about someone’s death — that triggered the charges.
“I just felt that we had to have an impact on the 13-year-old, not necessarily punitive, but for accountability,” Marquette County Prosecutor Matt Wiese told the Free Press. “Posting this hoax of somebody dying was pretty reckless.”
Wiese said that he also wants to send a message to parents and kids that “there can be serious consequences to reckless (online) behavior.”
“I wanted to encourage parents to pay attention to this seemingly private world that our children exist in,” Wiese said. “If we’re buying them a $600 smartphone and giving them access to this digital world, we need to know where they’re going, what they’re doing and who they’re talking to. If they’re not open, then we have a responsibility not to give them access.”
The girl’s family could not be reached for comment. She reportedly is back at school and feels bad about what happened.
According to Goss, whose oldest son got a copy of the messages that were being sent to Tysen that night, here is what happened:
Tysen was texting or Snapchatting with a person he thought was his girlfriend’s friend. He read a post that said his girlfriend had committed suicide. Tysen responded, saying he was going to kill himself, too. But those involved in the prank never texted him back that it was only a joke, nor did they alert any adult about Tysen’s plan.
According to Goss, the person who wrote the post was actually the girlfriend, who had borrowed a friend’s account, pretended to be her and faked her own death.
“She used her friend’s account to make it look like she died. Even when he said he was going to kill himself, she didn’t say, ‘I’m just kidding.’ She just left it alone,” said Goss, stressing she’s sharing this story to raise more awareness about the pervasive problem of cyberbullying.
People talk about bullying a lot, she said, but there are no real consequences.
“It’s not dealt with, and I think it’s a huge issue that should be dealt with nationally,” Goss said. “Tysen should be the face of this issue. He is someone that you would never think that that would happen to. I just can’t say it enough. He was amazing, and everybody adored him.”
In 2015, bullying ranked as the second biggest child health concern for a second year in a row, behind childhood obesity, according to an annual survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. However, the study also found that parents nationwide are conflicted about what cyberbullying is and how it should be punished.
The poll found:
• 63% believed that a social media campaign to elect a student for homecoming court as a prank is considered cyberbullying,
• Nearly two-thirds said that posting online rumors that a student had sex at school is cyberbullying.
• Less than half of parents say sharing a photo altered to make a classmate look fatter or posting online rumors that a student was caught cheating on a test was cyberbullying.
In nearly all cases, mothers were more likely than fathers to label actions as cyberbullying. Opinions about consequences were also mixed. Parents believe the most severe punishments should apply to those who post online rumors about a student having sex in school.
Meanwhile, Goss, who runs her own home cleaning business, has received an outpouring of support from her Marquette community. When Tysen was hospitalized in Ann Arbor for weeks, his hockey team and classmates made T-shirts saying, ‘Stay tough, Tysen.’ Friends set up GoFundMe accounts, which have raised tens of thousands of dollars from donors worldwide. And strangers from around the world have taken to Facebook to offer condolences and in some cases, share similar stories of pain.
As one woman who lost a teen son to suicide wrote: “You described my son, although he was 17. I know your pain but yours … 11 years old. My heart goes out to you all … this is happening all too often and the worlds need education. My sincerest sympathies.”
“That’s been the most helpful is hearing fellow moms with similar stories. It’s actually comforted me a little bit,” said Goss, who is trying to hold it together for her two other sons, Aundraes, 10, and 14-year-old Julian.
“I have to be strong for them and take care of them,” she said. “They’re my world.”
Goss said her children have been struggling to cope with the loss of their brother and the trauma they experienced the night she found him in his room.
“It was hysteria,” she recalled. “It was so crazy, and I screamed. My oldest got to the landline and called 911. My little one was screaming and crying.”
Tysen had a heartbeat. He was transferred to Ann Arbor, where he died on Tuesday.
“It’s been really, really hard,” said Tysen’s grandfather, Christopher Goss, who believes charging the girl is a good thing “if something positive comes from it.”
“I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s life,” Goss said. “I’m not a vindictive person, but something terrible happened. … He was a beautiful child.”
If you or someone you know is showing warning signs of suicide, consider contacting the at 800-273-TALK.
Contact Tresa Baldas: [email protected]
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