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Girl's suicide after alleged attack troubles town

Tuesday - 5/28/2013, 11:18am  ET

Sheila Pott poses with a portrait of her daughter Audrie in Los Altos, Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2013. Audrie Pott committed suicide in September 2012 after being sexually assaulted by three boys during a house party in Saratoga, Calif. Photos of the incident were circulated around Pott's high school prompting the teenager to hang herself in a bathroom at home. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

MARTHA MENDOZA
AP National Writer

SARATOGA, Calif. (AP) -- One evening last Labor Day weekend, 15-year-old Audrie Pott walked up the driveway of a classmate's home alongside other teenagers. She'd told her parents she was spending the night with a friend. The friend claimed she was sleeping at Audrie's. Instead, the girls were having a party. A classic teenage ploy.

By all accounts, Audrie was a gorgeous girl. Her lush brown hair framed a heart-shaped face. Light makeup outlined her sharp brown eyes, but round cheeks gave her a childlike charm. She was a soccer player, a painter, a girl who at age 4 had the gumption to stand in front of 1,000 people in church and belt out a solo.

On that Sunday night, she was just another kid pushing the limits as she celebrated the last days of summer, getting drunk with her friends on vodka and Gatorade.

Police and a civil lawsuit outline allegations of what happened next: Three boys came into a room where Audrie had passed out. When she awoke the next morning, her shorts were off. Pictures were doodled on her body with a Sharpie. On one leg was the name of a boy, followed by the words "was here."

"My life is ruined," Audrie would tell a friend in a Facebook message over the coming days. "I can't do anything to fix it."

Soon Audrie learned about a photograph apparently making the rounds -- of an intimate part of her body, taken, a family lawyer says, while she was passed out. "I have a reputation for a night I don't even remember," she wrote in another Facebook message, "and the whole school knows."

Eight days after the end-of-summer party, the sophomore who dreamed of traveling the world took her own life, hanging herself in a bathroom at home. Now the three boys, only 16 themselves, stand charged with sexual battery.

If the story of Audrie Pott rings familiar, it's because, tragically, it is. The federal government last year released data showing a rise in cyberbullying and youth suicide, including cases such as the 2010 death of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant who hanged herself after bullying by classmates in South Hadley, Mass. Five students later accepted plea deals.

In Ohio, the rape of a 16-year-old girl last year was recorded on cellphones and gossiped about online. Two high school football players were convicted in the incident. And last month police in Canada reopened the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Halifax, Nova Scotia, teen whose family said she was photographed while being sexually assaulted in 2011 and bullied after the photo circulated online. Parsons died in April after hanging herself.

"How can our society provide a safe haven for young girls? Why do young men feel that young girls are but objects for their sexual fantasies and pleasure? Why do teenagers avoid seeking help when they are depressed and suicidal?" asked the pastor who delivered the eulogy for 17-year-old Rehtaeh.

Such questions come easily in the wake of these cases. Answers? Less so.

Now another community is left grappling with the loss of another girl, and Saratoga is asking its own questions. About blame and morality -- but also what, if any, lessons can be learned from losing Audrie.

___

Saratoga is a bastion of calm tucked on the western edge of the Silicon Valley against the redwood-studded Santa Cruz Mountains. Baskets of geraniums dangle from streetlamps in the historic town of 30,000. Electric car-charging stations are installed in front of 130-year-old limestone buildings.

It's a community with some of the highest housing costs and incomes in the country, and it's known for its parks, its wineries -- and its highly rated public schools. It's not a community that typically grapples with crime, let alone teen suicide.

"So many of us have lived here for years, and nothing like this has ever happened here before," said Mayor Jill Hunter, whose four sons graduated from the same school Audrie and the three suspects attended, Saratoga High. "We're terribly sad. We're having to bide our time to find out what the courts say, what justice says."

Today sorrow flows in a quiet undercurrent through town. Friendly conversations and noisy cafes grow silent at the mention of Audrie's name. But at the high school and online, teenagers are speaking out -- calling for more dialogue about what's right and wrong, and for more kindness among peers.

"Things have got to change," junior class president Anup Kar said in a story published by the Saratoga High student newspaper. "Students need to start helping other students. Someone needs to step up, and it can't just be the same people. It has to be every single student on our campus, making an effort to make our campus a better safer place."

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