Social media 'witch hunt' after pupil's death

Morrinsville College. Photo / Google
Morrinsville College. Photo / Google
Students at a Waikato school are being begged to stop spreading abuse and rumours after the sudden death of a classmate.

Morrinsville College student Maria Witehira, 16, died suddenly on August 23. The Herald understands she died on the school's grounds.

Since her death, rumours and speculation have been rife on social media, leading to a teenage boy being blamed for the tragedy and in turn facing abuse and threats.

School principal John Inger, police, Maria's family and the family of the boy affected have all voiced concern over what the school described as "inaccurate, offensive and sometimes threatening comments on social media sites".

The boy's mother said rumours had been spread online that her son, who was already struggling to come to terms with the sudden loss, had abused Maria and caused her death. He had received abusive messages and had students threaten to beat him up.

"One person started a rumour and it became gospel," she said. "None of them have asked him Maria's story."

None of the people who spread the rumours knew what Maria had been through or how hard the family had worked to try to help her.

The rumours and abuse had taken a huge toll on the boy who no longer felt able to return to Morrinsville College and was struggling with the impact of all the untrue rumours, she said.

"He's got this whole feeling of worthlessness and blame."

She was of the opinion children should not be allowed social media.

"It was never about going on a witch hunt. I want these kids to realise the damage they have done," she said. "I just want them to understand that my son's life matters. They have stripped him of his life. I wonder how they would feel if it was them or their sister or brother? Or in years to come when it's their kids?"

His mother was also disappointed with the lack of support for her son from the school. She believed the school could have done more to make students aware that her son had no part in Maria's death.

Maria's aunt, Shalima Gibson, told the Herald she had called the school and offered to write a letter that could be read out to the students to explain that Maria was already going through issues and that the boy had no part in her death. However the offer was refused.

"The past five weeks were probably some of the happiest she had in years. She loved it down there [Morrinsville]. I'll be forever grateful for that," Gibson said.

Inger said the school had taken all the necessary actions - including providing counselling support for teenagers - in light of the tragedy.

He labelled those who were spreading rumours about the school, particularly around the student's death, as "online trolls".

"The upset that has caused the school is immense," he said.

A school newsletter also acknowledged the harmful rumours.

Inger said in the newsletter: "I sent out an email written by the police, who are very concerned that quite a few people in our school and community are looking to blame someone for our student's death and are writing inaccurate, offensive and sometimes threatening comments on social media sites."

He said that was having a "profound effect" on some people who had already been seriously affected by the loss.

Counsellors were brought in to help those who felt affected by the death.

The same day the newsletter was sent out, the school reposted an email from police to its Facebook page confirming officers were investigating the circumstances of the girl's death.

"We know that as a school community, you are grieving and you want to know why this has happened," the police email said.

"But while police are investigating this case, it's really important that we are able to get accurate information.

"We're urging you to please think before you spread rumours and speculation."

The police email went on to acknowledge that they knew some students were struggling to come to terms with the "tragic event" and encouraged people to talk to trusted friends or family or to call Youthline.

The statement went on to urge young people to make sure they were staying safe online.

"If you're getting messages that are unwelcome, or you feel like you are being bullied online, get in touch with NetSafe."

Yesterday afternoon Morrinsville College board chair Ngaire Te Ahu sent a Facebook post condemning the "misinformation" spread by students on social media.

"I want to reassure all parents that the response from the principal and staff has been to provide strong support to ensure the well-being of all of those students and staff affected, especially through support actions taken by our guidance counsellors and external agencies.

"We at the school were very concerned that some of our students had been pointing the finger of blame for our student's passing unfairly by writing inaccurate, offensive and sometimes threatening comments on social media sites, and we appealed to parents to help us to stop this happening. Efforts were also made at school to stop this occurring."

A coronial services spokesperson said the case was active with the coroner.

Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

• Youth services: (06) 3555 906

• Youthline: 0800 376 633

• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

• Helpline: 1737

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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