DETROIT (AP) — Tysen Benz was at home when he saw social media posts indicating that his 13-year-old girlfriend had committed suicide. The posts were a prank, but the 11-year-old boy apparently believed them.
Moments later, his mother found him hanging by the neck in his room in Marquette, Michigan. Now a prosecutor is pursuing criminal charges against a juvenile accused of being involved in the scheme, which Katrina Goss described as “a twisted, sick joke.”
Goss described her son as appearing “fine” just 40 minutes before she found him.
“I just want it be exposed and be addressed,” Goss said of school bullying in general and cyberbullying in particular. “I don’t want it be ignored.”
Using a cellphone he bought without his mother’s knowledge, Tysen on March 14 was reading texts and other messages about the faked suicide and decided he would end his life too, his mother said.
After seeing the posts about his girlfriend, Tysen replied over social media that he was going to kill himself, and no one involved in the prank told an adult, Goss said.
The boy died Tuesday at a Detroit-area hospital.
Authorities would not release the age of the juvenile charged or comment on what relationship the person had with Tysen. The juvenile is being charged with malicious use of telecommunication services and using a computer to commit a crime.
The girl whose death was faked and friends who were in on the prank attended the same school as Tysen, Goss said. Even though the prank occurred outside of school, she said, the school should have done more to protect her son.
“The principal, the assistant principal — that’s their job, especially for little kids,” she said. “Kids take things to heart.”
In a statement released Thursday, Marquette Area Public Schools Superintendent William Saunders agreed with Goss’s concerns about the dangers of social media. He said the district has been educating students and parents through its health curriculum, health fairs, community forums and other efforts.
“After the gut-wrenching loss of a student, we ask ourselves, ‘How can we do more?'” Saunders wrote. “To that answer, we look forward to partnering with parents and the community to double our efforts in educating all.”
Most states, including Michigan, have enacted legislation designed to protect children from bullies.
Michigan’s anti-bullying act, signed in 2011 by Gov. Rick Snyder, requires school districts to have anti-bullying policies on the books. It was known as “Matt’s Safe School Law” after Matt Epling, a 14-year-old who killed himself after a 2002 hazing incident.
The law was updated two years ago to direct school districts to add language to those policies that address cyberbullying.
Former Republican state Rep. Phil Potvin, who sponsored the original bill, said schools have a responsibility to do more than include anti-cyberbullying rules in their written policies. He wanted districts to have “the opportunity to create what would work in their school system.”
“They have to have a person — spelled out — to make sure that policy is followed,” said Potvin, of Cadillac in northern Michigan. “Some schools have failed to do that. They may have put something in, but there is no follow up. There is no checking up on these things.”
Prosecuting cases such as the one involving Tysen’s death could be problematic, according to Los Angeles-based attorney Michael Cernyar, whose practice has an emphasis on digital evidence.
Pranks carried out over social media might have constitutional protections, he said.
“I wonder what role it would be if the computer wasn’t involved,” Cernyar said. “What would happen if these kids just telephoned him or went to his house and said it?”
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