“Has your whole town seen you naked? Mine has.” That was the shocking statement that got the attention of the 9th- and 10th-grade students at an assembly at last week.
Ally Pereira, a 22-year-old New Jersey resident, took center stage as a result of a , it had been shared on a Facebook page called the Anti Bullying Coalition and Ally e-mailed me to tell me her story, .
I brought her story to , who in turn shared it with the school’s Cyber Ally team. They all agreed that this was something students needed to hear.
At first glance she could have passed for a student, but within seconds of her opening statement, the auditorium was silenced as Ally explained how one impulsive decision turned into a nightmare. She had been a naïve 16-year-old whose long-term boyfriend had broken up with her. When he told her they could get back together if she texted a nude photo of herself, Ally believed him. She sent him a photo but did not get a reply.
He sent the photo with everyone on his contact list, and many of those recipients forwarded it, too. Within 24 hours it seemed like everyone had seen it. It was not long before the bullying started. Boys made fun of her saying she would never get another boyfriend now that everyone had seen her naked, girls bullied her because their boyfriends had seen it. She received death threats, her family were harassed, their house vandalized.
After she finished telling her story, Ally shared a video of an MTV documentary called A Thin Line; When Privates Go Public. The video combines interviews with Ally, her friends and family and facts and figures about “sexting.” They explain how there can be legal implications for anyone caught sending or even forwarding a text containing images of nudity of a minor.
One student asked Ally if her boyfriend was arrested and she said “No, because if I had him charged, he could have had me arrested, too, for sending it and I could have been charged with manufacturing child pornography.” Someone asked if she had ever spoken to him again and Ally answered “No, but about a year later, he sent me a text asking for another photo.” There was a gasp of shock from the audience.
As the video ended Ally asked if anyone had any questions and a hush fell over the audience. Slowly one girl raised her hand, 10th-grade student Khiana Maenza asked Ally if she had ever thought about hurting herself as a result of what happened.
“I was very suicidal. No one really knew how bad it was until I tried to kill myself," said Ally. "At that point my parents took me to a therapist and eventually the whole family ended up in therapy.”
I caught up with Khiana afterwards and she told me she knew someone that had made a similar mistake as Ally, but his girlfriend’s father had seen the nude text and had pressed charges. As a result the young man had to register as a sex offender and this was too much for him to bear and he took his life.
Another student asked her why she did not just move. Ally shook her head and pointed out that the pictures would have followed her, they were on the internet and it would only be a matter of time before students in her new school would find them and the bullying would begin again. Even six years later, Ally finds herself having to explain to new bosses about the photo, and how there were MySpace pages made about her.
“It never goes away, but it does get better, you learn how to cope,” she explained.
When a girl asked if the bullying ever stopped Ally said, “No, it went on for years. It had died down then it reappeared when another girl got caught doing the same thing when I was a senior. The harassment also started again when I decided to start speaking publicly about my nightmare. Even my mom was targeted; people would yell at her that her daughter was a whore.”
Ally wrapped up her talk by telling the audience that her snap decision had a huge impact on her life. She was scared to go away to college she feared people would judge her and hate her, she lost most of her friends and she now has trust issues. She knows it has left a lasting effect on her parents and her brother, too.
After the applause died down and the students began filing out of the auditorium, a group of girls waited to talk to Ally. Allie Zampano came forward and told Ally, “I really admire your courage, being able to stand up and tell your story.” Ally smiled and told her that she does it for the girls who don’t have a voice; the ones too scared to speak out and the ones who committed suicide. Being able to tell her story and warn what can happen has made her stronger.
Ally told me that this happens every time she speaks in a school. As she passed out her e-mail address to girls who requested it, she told me that she had spoken at East Haven High School the day before. A student went home and then sent her a two-page letter telling Ally about her nightmare.
As she packed up her things to drive back to New Jersey, I asked how she fits these public engagements into her schedule. Ally told me she is an ultrasound tech and keeps two days a week free so she can do these talks. She knows how important it is to get the message out. Not just about sending sexts, but about not bullying.
Cyber Ally co-advisor Megan Bishop said they had formed this student-teacher committee a year ago with help from the Anti-Defamation League. Their goal is to advise students on how to stay out of potential dangerous situations online and hopes that presentations like this make kids think twice before hitting “send” or bullying those who do.