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Middle Tennessee school district takes action after bullying, teen suicides

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WILSON COUNTY, Tenn. — Wilson Co. investigators seized suicide victim’s smartphone to see if excessive bullying lead to the teen's suicide.

The tragedy has community leaders saying enough is enough and taking drastic measures to stop the problem. Wilson County neighbors mourned the lives of two students at Lebanon High School taken too soon by suicide this year.

"I think it's an epidemic with our young people," said Jennifer Johnson, communications director for Wilson County Schools. Experts say for every suicide death, there are 25 attempts nationwide. According to Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates doubled among teen girls and increased by more than 30 percent among teen boys from 2007 to 2015.

It's the third leading cause of death in young people in the state of Tennessee, claiming more lives each year than cancer, heart disease, HIV and meningitis combined.

Rodger Dinwiddie is the CEO of Students Taking a Right Stand in Nashville. He believed smartphones are largely to blame for the rising suicide rates.

"Because of social media, because of the rapid acceleration of a text, a post," Dinwiddie said. "All of a sudden you're talking about potentially thousands of people who see the posts, see the texts, who see the harmful things that are said. So it exacerbates that risk if you will."

Johnson couldn't get in to specifics but blames social media bullying on much of the reported conflicts among kids in their district.

"There were a couple of specific situations that raised it to the level of needing a very targeted solution," Johnson said. "A lot of times we find out after the fact that something really horrible has been going on."

This fall the district decided it's time to fight fire with fire by launchnig the 'Stop It' app at Lebanon High School. Paid for by insurance and free for students, it allows kids to communicate with school teachers and administrators live and anonymously to report hurtful words and actions.

"The student doesn't know who the adult is and vice versa so it allows for an open conversation," Johnson said. "For people to give specific information without feeling like they're going to be retaliated against by one of their classmates."

While conversations on the app may be anonymous, district leaders and local law enforcement want kids to know the Snapchats, texts, and Facebook posts they're sending to one another are not. The Wilson County Sheriff's Office warned bullying can be considered harassment, and there can be legal consequences if it gets taken too far.

"We look at that and we look at hard evidence," said WCSO Lt. Scott Moore. "Anything that's done on social media can be tracked down. Any kind of investigation that goes on, we want to make sure we take it to the fullest extent."

So far the 'Stop It' app is only available at Lebanon High School, but the district has plans to expand to other Wilson County Schools in the coming weeks.

If you or someone you know is struggling with bullying or suicide, click here for help and a list of resources.

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