Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mother hopes others learn from dead girl

Playful act led to threats, cyberstalking, suicide

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Amanda Todd's mother, Carol Todd, doesn't want other children to suffer the way her daughter did -- stalked and harassed by bullies in cyberspace and in the schoolyard, by people she knew and by others many miles away.

Amanda told her story in the heart-wrenching video that chronicled her nightmare: the taunts, the beating, the cyberstalker who tracked her down whenever she tried to start afresh at a new school -- firing off images that captured her showing off her young body, flattered by online attention from someone she thought was a kid just like her.

Amanda killed herself this week, one month shy of her 16th birthday and one month after telling the world in a YouTube video of bullying that left her depressed and despairing.

Now Carol wants to tell her story. It is a story no mother wants to be in a position to tell.

"Amanda was a very caring individual. She would help others who needed help," Carol told the Vancouver Sun during an interview Friday at her home, where she was surrounded by friends and family. "One of Amanda's goals was to get her message out there and have it used as a learning tool for others."

As a teacher in the Coquitlam school district and a specialist in assistive technologies, Carol is comfortable around computers and knows well the dangers the online world can hold. Still, she wasn't able to protect her child.

"I have lost one child but know she wanted her story to save 1,000 more."

Amanda was 12 years old when she made a mistake that would haunt her until her death three years later.

Her ordeal started while she was fooling around online with friends. She probably didn't think it was risky behaviour when she lifted her top to flash the person who was flattering her at the other end of the webcam.

Amanda's moment of indiscretion was not unusual for someone her age: Sexting and using webcams to share sexual photos is a growing trend among children, some so young they are still in grade school.

"The Internet stalker she flashed kept stalking her," Carol said. "Every time she moved schools, he would go undercover and become a Facebook friend. What the guy did was he went online to the kids who went to (the new school) and said that he was going to be a new student -- that he was starting school the following week and that he wanted some friends and could they friend him on Facebook.

"He eventually gathered people's names and sent Amanda's video to her new school."

The video and photos went to teachers, to parents, to Facebook friends, which led to repeated taunts: "Oh, there's the porn star."

"It increased her anxiety and she couldn't go to class," Carol said.

In putting together her video, which Amanda did on her own, Carol said her daughter wanted to help other young people who are being bullied and to bring attention and education to the problem in hope of seeing it eradicated.

"Amanda wanted to tell her story to help other kids. I want to tell my story to help parents, so they can be aware, so they can teach their kids what is right and wrong and how to be safe online," she said. "Kids have iPads, they have smartphones; technology is much more accessible than it was even five years ago -- that is the dangerous factor."

When Amanda's story and video went viral this week, the outpouring of grief from local teens left Carol unable to distinguish Amanda's true friends from those who may have helped drive her to suicide.

Carol has launched a trust fund in Amanda's memory to raise money for anti-bullying awareness education and for support programs for youth with mental-health issues.

Amanda was the victim of unrelenting blackmail. And the cyberstalker was aided by people in Amanda's real-world life -- kids who shared the photos on their cellphones, kids who ganged up to hurl first verbal abuse and then fists at her.

"Everything she said in the video happened over the past two years," said Carol. "It was horrendous. I think about it now and I think, 'Oh my God. How did she survive this long with the pain?' "

The end, when it came, was a shock. Despite Amanda's earlier suicide attempts, Carol said in recent days and weeks she was getting much better. She spent time in hospital in September, getting treatment and counselling.

Her life was starting to return to normal, which it hadn't been since Grade 8.

"She felt like a normal teenager; she was so proud of herself," Carol said. "She went out with friends, she went to the mall; she said to me, 'Mom, this is the first time that I feel normal again. I have had the best day ever.' "

Carol doesn't know what caused her daughter's setback, but Amanda may have given Carol an answer in a private video.

"She left me a video message on her phone. I'm not ready to look at it yet," said Carol.

"The coroner has told me it will provide closure for me, but I can't look at it yet."

Carol doesn't know what, but sometime earlier this week -- before Amanda killed herself late Wednesday afternoon -- something happened to shatter that fragile recovery.

Police have been unable to track her stalker down.

"The police investigated and investigated. It got traced to somebody in the United States," Carol said. "But they never found him. Those people are very good at hiding their tracks."

The suspected pedophile threatened if she didn't do a show for him, he would circulate her pictures again. Amanda wouldn't bow to the pressure, and he carried out his threat.

Finger-pointing at schools for not stopping bullying only angers Carol. She said Amanda, who had learning problems, had excellent support in the Coquitlam school district, where she spent most of her school time.

Since March, she had been a student at CABE, Coquitlam Alternate Basic Education Secondary School, which is a haven for youth who, for whatever reason, need an alternative learning situation.

It was there Amanda made friends, among both students and staff.

"She had a good support network there," Carol said. Amanda especially liked former Olympic track and field star and physical education teacher Leah Pells.

"She and Amanda clicked and Amanda trusted her," Carol said.

Carol is much more tech savvy than the average parent.

But Amanda's victimization at the hands of the stalker led Carol to learn more about the horrifying world of child pornography, where some victims don't even know their images are being shown on porn sites.

"You'll see pornography and the girls are so young," she said. "I don't know if the girls are doing this for kicks, if their parents are monitoring it or if they even know about it."

The Royal Bank of Canada is accepting donations to the Amanda Todd trust fund at all its branches.

 

-- Vancouver Sun

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 14, 2012 A6

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