Channing Smith’s final Instagram post was a terse message to his followers.
Hours later, Channing was dead, his older brother, Joshua Smith, wrote on Facebook. The teenager killed himself after discovering that sexually explicit messages he exchanged with another boy had been shared on social media by classmates who wanted to “humiliate and embarrass” him, Mr Smith told the WZTV news channel.
“Being in a small, rural town in the middle of Tennessee, you can imagine being the laughingstock and having to go to school Monday morning,” Mr Smith said. “He couldn’t face the humiliation that was waiting on him when he got to school on Monday.”
Channing’s death continues to send shock waves through his community, with his family accusing the local district attorney, who has previously stated anti-LGBT+ views, of failing to seriously investigate the incident.
The news even caught the attention of country music star Billy Ray Cyrus, who made a trip to Manchester over the weekend to perform at a memorial for Channing.
Wearing a white T-shirt with the words “#JusticeForChanning,” Cyrus was joined onstage by Channing’s father for a rendition of “Amazing Grace”, the teen’s favourite song.
“My heart breaks for Channing, his family, his friends and the community,” Cyrus tweeted last week. “This is the saddest story. . . . Enough is enough.”
The tragedy began unfolding late on 22 September, when Channing called people he knew in a panic around 10pm, his older brother told BuzzFeed News. Images of his private conversations with another boy had been posted on Instagram and Snapchat, his family said.
Before the messages were leaked, Channing had not discussed his sexuality publicly or identified as LGBT+.
“They were graphic texts and there was no room for Channing to be able to claim it was a misunderstanding,” his brother said.
At 4am on 23 September, Channing’s father saw that the lights were still on in his son’s room and went to check on him, Mr Smith said. Instead of finding the teenager asleep, his father discovered his body.
“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,” Mr Smith wrote in a Facebook post titled: “Being gay shouldn’t be a death sentence.”
Mr Smith later added, “Nobody deserves to die as they are figuring their way through this complex journey called life.”
A Facebook page called Justice for Channing was created after the teen’s death, and hundreds attended a vigil held last week in Manchester, a city of more than 10,000 people located about 65 miles southeast of Nashville.
But amid emotional eulogies remembering the teenager who loved music, cars and riding his motorcycle, there has been an undertone of anger as the Smith family has condemned bullying while harshly criticising the Coffee County District Attorney’s Office and school administrators.
Channing was a junior at Coffee County Central High School, where a classmate and friend told BuzzFeed News that he was bullied even before his messages went public because he occasionally “talked in a girly voice and walked with sass.”
“Just because you think it’s cute or funny to make somebody embarrassed or humiliate them, think again,” Crystal Smith, Channing’s mother, said at Thursday’s vigil, WTVF reported. “Because if somebody would have realised that, my son would not be dead.”
In recent days, Joshua Smith has repeatedly called out district attorney Craig Northcott’s handling of his little brother’s case. Northcott came under fire earlier this year after a 2018 video surfaced of him saying he did not recognise “homosexual marriage” and would not prosecute same-sex domestic violence cases, the Tennessean reported.
“I was told by the lead investigator in Coffee County that he was pushing to have the kids charged criminally and the DA’s office has decided that they did not want to pursue it,” Mr Smith told WZTV last week.
Mr Northcott released a statement disputing the claims, noting that no charging decisions have been made because an investigation is still ongoing.
“My office has encouraged, cooperated in and supported the investigation into the events leading to this death,” the statement said, according to the Tennessee Holler newspaper. “Any report that my office has failed or refused to act is inaccurate.”
Mr Smith has also gone after high school administrators, accusing them of not taking action against the two alleged bullies and for failing to properly acknowledge Channing’s death.
“They haven’t made any mention about him or his death on their website, on Facebook, anywhere,” Mr Smith told BuzzFeed News.
Additionally, some students who tried to pay tribute to the teenager during a homecoming rally on Friday said the school’s principal made them take off T-shirts and put away posters that had “Justice for Channing” emblazoned on them.
School officials could not be reached for comment late on Sunday.
At Sunday’s memorial, however, “Justice for Channing” was everywhere – on shirts and homemade signs and even on Joshua Smith’s arm, in the form of a new tattoo. I can assure you, your school hopes you forget, your town hopes you forget,” Joshua Smith told the large crowd that had gathered.
“But we’re not going to let that happen. . . . Action is going to be taken. We don’t get Channing back, that’s done, can’t go backwards. But we can use this incident to create change moving forward.”
Meanwhile, Channing’s mother remembered her son as someone who always made time to help friends in need.
“He was the one kids went to,” she said. “He would stay up all night talking to them, trying to talk them out of anything. I know he has talked kids out of suicide because he told me he did.”
She later added, “I remember many times when I was having a hard time, I’d break down and cry and he’d come up to me and put his arms around me and say, ‘Momma, it’d be all right, it’d be OK,’ and that was Channing.”
The Washington Post