Bisexual teen dies by suicide after being outed by classmates, family says

Channing Smith, 16, was a student at Coffee County Central High School.

September 30, 2019, 9:08 PM

A Tennessee teenager took his own life after being outed as bisexual by classmates who bullied him, according to his family.

Channing Smith, a 16-year-old student at Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, Tennessee, died by suicide last week, leaving his family looking for answers. The family said it reached out to the teen's friends, classmates and social media connections and found out the shocking truth.

The teen had sent sexually explicit text messages to another boy shortly before his death. The recipient shared screenshots of the private messages with a female classmate, who released them on social media, according to his family.

Smith was not out at the time and the exposed messages led to incessant cyberbullying, the family said. He allegedly told a classmate about his plans to end his life due to the bullying, but she did not report the threats.

Crystal Smith speaks about her son, Channing Smith, 16, during a vigil in Coffee County, Tennessee.

"My brother committed suicide because of the actions of 2 kids that he trusted that turned personal screen shot messages over to social media in a deliberate attempt to assassinate his character," Joshua Smith, Channing's older brother, wrote in a Facebook post. "I refuse to allow Channing’s death to pass by without justice and positivity manifesting from his grave."

"The world will hear more from me. I’m not sure the direction that I’m headed but I will fight against bullying, suicide and hate," he added.

The high school junior's death highlights an alarming reality: nearly 48% of gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide, compared to about 13% of their heterosexual counterparts, according to a 2017 national survey of almost 15,000 students conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The family launched a #JusticeForChanning campaign in an effort to get the Coffee County district attorney to bring charges against the students involved. Community members also organized a number of memorials, including one on Sunday when country singer Billy Ray Cyrus performed a rendition of "Amazing Grace."

Billy Ray Cyrus performs during a vigil for 16-year-old Channing Smith, after he took his own life, in Coffee County, Tennessee.

"As a mother, I was mad. So we came up with a petition," Deana Bannister, who attended the Sunday memorial, told Nashville ABC affiliate WKRN. "All lives matter in this county and in this town so we are going to try to move forward with trying to get sensitivity here with not only the DA, but with the schools. I want an open community where people can freely talk about who they are and not be scared."

The family said the DA's office refused to take criminal action against the students involved, but the office denied those allegations.

"When all relevant facts are available, my office will advise the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department on what charges, if any, we believe are appropriate to help guide it in that decision," Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott said in a statement last week, according to the Tennesseean. "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."

Northcott stirred controversy last year when he told a group of pastors he did not recognize the validity of "homosexual marriage” and therefore didn’t prosecute assaults between gay couples as domestic assaults, according to Tennesseean.

The office did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Coffee County residents attend a vigil for 16-year-old Channing Smith, after he took his own life.

Family members have asked supporters to contact the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department and the DA's office "until action is taken."

"This is most definitely not a topic that I thought I’d be campaigning about," Joshua Smith said in his Facebook post. "Nobody deserves to die as they are figuring their way through this complex journey called life."

The CDC survey showed 33% of gay, lesbian and bisexual teens reported being bullied on school property within the previous 12 months, compared to about 19% of their heterosexual peers. Separately, more than 60% of students who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual reported feeling sad or hopeless, compared to about 27 percent of straight students.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.