Obituary: Brandy Vela, a suicide; cyberbullying

Brandy Vela, a promising senior at Texas City High School in Houston, hoping to pursue a career in veterinary medicine, died in her home on Tuesday, November 29, from a gunshot wound to her chest, which was self-inflicted following cyberbullying on a fake dating website. She was 18.


Brandy Vela killed herself after a cyberbully made “nasty comments” about her.

A cyberbully who knew Brandy allegedly created a fake account in her name, provided her phone number, and announced that she was “giving herself up for sex for free, to call her.”

Her sister and father told several news agencies that Brandy was receiving call after call until she had had enough. Her father tried to convince her to put the gun down but said, “she’d come too far to turn back. It was very unfortunate that I had to see that. It’s hard when your daughter tells you to turn around. You feel helpless.”

Houston police are said to be investigating the cyberbullying reports. But the apps used for bullying encrypt the messages and don’t leave a digital trace of the comments posted, and the telephone numbers used to call her were untraceable, multiple sources said, citing Melissa Tortorici, Texas City High School’s communications director.

Ms Tortorici added that the school is remembering Brandy by filling the hallways with a color that reminds everyone of one of their “lost angels”: “The balloons will be blue. Brandy had beautiful blue eyes. In addition, students have been taping blue hearts down the hallways around school.”

A Celebration of Life ceremony was conducted on December 7, and arrangements were handled by Carnes Funeral Home.

Melania Trump, the wife of President-elect Donald Trump, promised in a speech at a rally in Pennsylvania that she would work to end cyberbullying.

“I will focus on helping children and women, and also about social media. In this 21st century, what’s going on, it’s very hurtful to children. To some adults as well, but we need to take care of children,” she said, adding that she felt Americans had become too mean.

Tips for teens to protect themselves online

I regret that it has come to this point, because I know how much fun it can be to have a personality online. Safety comes first, though, and some common practices used by teens online can lead them into trouble.

Here’s some advice, a convenient and quick guide for staying safe online, produced by the Seattle Police Department.

General Guidelines:

1. Make sure your social networking page is set to private.

2. Password protect all of your pictures, blogs, and images online to ensure only those you know and trust have access.

3. Do not put your personal information on the web including your social networking site. This is going to include your full name, date of birth, what city you live in, what school you attend, where you play sports or activities, and what those activities and sports are, the names of your friends, your personal email address and phone number.

4. Ensure your privacy settings are up to date, say, on Facebook, which frequently updates privacy settings.

5. Do not “friend” people that you do not actually know. “Knowing” them in cyberspace does not count.

6. Think about what you post. Sharing provocative photos or intimate details online, even in private emails, can cause you problems later on. Even people you consider friends can use this info against you, especially if they become ex-friends.

7. Read “between the lines.” It may be fun to check out new people for friendship or romance, but be aware that, while some people are nice, others act nice because they’re trying to get something. Flattering or supportive messages may be more about manipulation than friendship or romance.

8. Don’t talk about sex with strangers. Be cautious when communicating with people you don’t know in person, especially if the conversation starts to be about sex or physical details. Don’t lead them on—you don’t want to be the target of a predator’s grooming. If they persist, call your local police or contact CyberTipline.com.

9. Avoid in-person meetings. The only way someone can physically harm you is if you’re both in the same location, so to be 100 percent safe, don’t meet them in person. If you really have to get together with someone you “met” online, don’t go alone. Have the meeting in a public place, tell a parent or some other solid backup, and bring some friends along.

10. Be smart when using a cell phone. All the same tips apply with phones as with computers. Except phones are with you wherever you are, often away from home and your usual support systems. Be careful who you give your number to and how you use GPS and other technologies that can pinpoint your physical location.

11. Keep in mind that anything you post online, whether that includes information or pictures, NEVER really goes away. It will be online FOREVER!

12. Nothing you do online is truly anonymous.

13. Before clicking SEND or POST, be sure to think about the recipient’s reaction, and understand that nothing is truly private online.

14. It is very easy to lie about who you are and your identity online—time does not equal trust. And remember, you can be lied to online.

Teen Sexting Tips:

“Sexting” usually refers to teens sharing nude photos via cellphone, but it’s happening on other devices and the web too. The practice can have serious legal and psychological consequences, so teens and adults: consider these tips!

It’s illegal: Don’t take or send nude or sexually suggestive photos of yourself or anyone else. If you do, even if they’re of you or you pass along someone else’s, you could be charged with producing or distributing child pornography. If you keep them on your phone or computer, you could be charged with possession. If they go to someone in another state (and that happens really easily), it’s a federal felony.

Non-legal consequences: Then there’s the emotional (and reputation) damage that can come from having intimate photos of yourself go to a friend who can become an ex-friend and send it to everyone you know. Not only can they be sent around; they can be distributed and archived online for people to search for pretty much forever.

Not just on phones. Sexting can be done on any media-sharing device or technology, including email and the web. Teens have been convicted for child porn distribution for emailing sexually explicit photos to each other.

Many causes. In some cases, kids are responding to peer pressure in a form of cyberbullying or pressure from a boyfriend or girlfriend (they break up, and sometimes those photos get sent around out of revenge). Sometimes it’s impulsive behavior, flirting, or even blackmail. It’s always a bad idea.

The bottom line: Stay alert when using digital media. People aren’t always who they seem to be, even in real life, and sometimes they change and do mean things. Critical thinking about what we upload as well as download is the best protection.

—Stefanie Thomas, Victim Advocate, Seattle Police Department
Internet Crimes against Children Task Force

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.