Bullying: Words Can Kill

A "48 Hours" special on bullying in the digital age

Bullying: Words Can Kill

If you have any doubt that bullying is taking a deadly toll...buy a ticket to a play called "The Bullycide Project." It tells the stories of 10 of the more than 150 children estimated to have taken their lives since 1983, rather than face another day of bullying.

The parents of these children are often in the audience... reliving their children's suicides over and over again, for one reason:

"We belong to a terrible club, and we don't want any more parents in this club," said Kevin Epling.

Kevin and Tammy Epling lost their son, Matt, to bullycide after a brutal high school hazing in 2002.

"We were those parents who didn't know that this was going on," Kevin explained. "Nobody was telling us that this was a problem, so we couldn't act. That's why we do it now."

For 10 years, the Eplings have made it their mission to keep schools, parents and lawmakers informed about the fatal epidemic. But despite their efforts, another 122 children have committed bullycide since they lost their son.

"I think we've done a really good job as a society of protecting our kids from online predators," said Kevin. "But we not have done a good job of protecting them from each other online."

Special bullying section: Resources and more

The most recent story added to this tragic play is Jessica Logan's.

Cynthia Logan says her daughter was cyberbullied to death and still can't make sense of the devastating loss.

"Her friends failed her. The school failed her. And the law failed her," Logan told Tracy Smith. "I did as much as I could do as a parent, knowing as little as I did."

Video: Hear more from Cynthia Logan

Cynthia describes her only child as "fun loving -- quirky, silly. She loved to make people laugh. ... She was my everything. I did everything with her."

But for as long as her best friend, Samantha [Sami] Bruce, can remember, little Jessie was a target. "People called her dwarf and midget and all sorts of stuff like that," she said.

Things got worse in high school. As a sophomore at Sycamore High in suburban Cincinnati, she was mercilessly tormented by a group of boys.

"Telling her that she was really not, like, worth a piece of s--t," Cynthia told Smith. "And ugly and troll-like. And if you go -- "Go hang yourself. Because no one really cares about you.'"

By Jessie's senior year, Sami had graduated. Jessie had few friends at Sycamore, so she focused on friends at nearby Loveland High. Sarah Ramsey was one of them.

"We were extremely close," Sarah told Smith. "From the first day I met her we were unseparable."

But Sami claims Sarah and her friends also tormented Jessie.

"Jessie was terrified of the dark," she explained. "And they locked her in a closet that was just pitch black ... and left her in there."

But Jessie was so desperate to fit in, she put up with the abuse.

"She wanted to be friends with them, and they just didn't accept her for who she was," said Sami.

Then, weeks before graduation, Jessie took a risk that made her a huge target. She reportedly texted a nude photo of herself to a boy she was dating at Loveland High, Ryan Salyers. Soon after, a friend at Sycamore noticed three girls in a classroom huddled around a cell phone.

"She told me that she heard the next table over laughing and giggling," Cynthia said. "So she walked over to see and she saw Jessica's photo on the phone."

Jessie immediately suspected Ryan, but he denied sharing the photo. So she turned to Sycamore High's resource officer, Paul Payne, who visited Loveland High. He told Jessie that Sarah and two other girls -- Amy Reiber and Courtney Richardson -- admitted to taking the photo from her phone and that he asked the girls to delete it from their phones.

"Officer Paine says that you admitted that you took the photo from Jessie's phone. Is that true?" Smith asked Sarah.

"No," she replied. "I've never even heard that before."

"Why would he say that?"

"That's a good question."

"How did you find out about the photo?" Smith continued.

"I received it," Sarah replied.

"And how'd you receive it?"

"Through a text message," she said.

"Who gave it to you?"

"I'm not gonna -"

"You don't wanna say who sent it to you."

"No," Sarah replied. "I mean, I don't wanna, like, point fingers at anybody."

Whoever sent it, once the nude photo surfaced at Sycamore it had gone viral, circulating through three more local high schools.

"On Facebook she was being attacked," Cynthia said. "But, mostly on her cell phone. ...texting her messages -- like filthy messages. 'You're a pig. You're a whore.'"

In a deposition, Officer Payne said he referred Jessie to a school counselor and talked with the local prosecutor about filing charged, but was told that wouldn't be possible. Payne then told Jessie that because she was 18, there was nothing more he could do for her.

But Payne did offer her another suggestion.

"He said it would be very good for you to go public with this, because not only would you be helping yourself, to get the message out there, but you would be helping other peers and other students," Cynthia told Smith.

Payne gave Jessie the business card of a local TV news reporter looking for teens willing to talk about sexting... but says he didn't encourage her, and was surprised when Jessie agreed. Cynthia says she objected, but went with Jessie to make sure her identity was disguised.

Officer Payne was also interviewed. Cynthia says after the story aired, the bullying got even worse. "They were spitting on her. ... in Sycamore High School, the guys were sp-- you know [spitting on her head]."

"48 Hours" made several attempts to talk with Officer Payne, but he refused.

Things got so bad that Jessie started skipping school, but she still managed to graduate. Then, on July 3, 2008, she attended the funeral of a boy who had hung himself after a fight with his parents.

Cynthia says Jessie was inconsolable. "I tried everything I could to tell her that sometimes tragedies like this happen in life, and nobody has answers for it."

The night of the funeral, Jessie went up to her room to shower. About 10 minutes later, Cynthia went to check on her.

"And in the middle of the floor is her phone that's open, and her closet doors are open. And I scan the room quickly ...And I panic, you know. So I walk into the room, and I turn to the closet," Cynthia recalled - her voice breaking, "and there is my baby hanging..."

There was no suicide note. "... and I have no idea why she left me."

Last year, Cynthia and her husband filed lawsuits against Ryan and four girls accused of sharing the nude photo. They also sued the City of Montgomery, Officer Payne and Sycamore High School.

"I wanted accountability. I wanted them to know that they didn't do enough to save my child," Cynthia told Smith. "And you need to do something about it so it never happens to another child."

Ryan and the girls settled out of court. The cases against the city and Officer Payne were dismissed; the judge said Payne did not act unreasonably. The case against Sycamore is still in litigation and the school has refused "48 Hours" requests for an interview.

In honor of Jessie, Cynthia is fighting for legislation to protect children and teens who are bullied. "I can't save my daughter. She's gone. So I'm trying to save other kids. Jessie would want me to do that..."

Video: Hear more from Cynthia Logan

Meanwhile, Kevin Epling believes that because cyberbullying has turned up the heat on peer-to-peer abuse, we haven't seen the worst of it.

"Kids are just getting bombarded 24/7," he said. "I've talked with law enforcement. ...in certain cities we're probably sitting on some powder kegs. Something's gonna happen. ...We need to diffuse a lot of the tense situations in our schools, and we have to do it today."