The family of Channing Smith along with Billy Ray Cyrus met with First Lady Melania Trump Monday to raise awareness about cyberbullying and suicide prevention. Smith, a 16-year-old high school student from Manchester, Tenn., died by suicide in September after he was outed as bisexual by classmates. Channing's brother Joshua spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle by phone Wednesday and called his meeting at the White House "really awesome."
"You never know how many steps away you are from someone else. The first lady already knew about the death of my brother and [our] situation," Joshua shared. Channing took his own life after sexually explicit text messages he exchanged with a male classmate were posted on social media. "She has her own campaign called Be Best so she has championed cyberbullying already, mostly because the news media was doing it to her son [Barron] during the election and stuff."
The first lady's Be Best initiative focuses on "the major issues facing children today" and concentrates on three main pillars: well-being, online safety and opioid abuse. She tweeted about this week’s meeting writing, "Teaching positive online behaviors can ensure a safer future for our children."
Highlighting online safety is one of my #BeBest priorities. Yesterday, @billyraycyrus introduced me to the Smith family to hear about the tragic loss of their loved one from cyberbullying. Teaching positive online behaviors can ensure a safer future for our children. pic.twitter.com/3p4HfdRtTX— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) November 19, 2019
"She was so down to earth and she was like, 'I'm not unrealistic, we're never going to stop people from being mean to each other.' We share that because part of what I'm trying to do and my mission... it's our duty to use the platform that we have. That's what we talked about," Joshua explained. "We're just going to try and collaborate to do whatever we can to raise awareness for prevention."
Joshua's father David also attended the meeting along with Cyrus, who has become close with the Smiths. He even performed "Amazing Grace" at Channing's memorial service. The Grammy nominated singer praised the First Lady on Twitter Tuesday writing, "Your sincerity was truly inspiring. You/your team were so engaged to Channing's grieving father & brother & brought ideas/strategy to make the world a safer better place for the youth in America #JusticeForChanning."
What an honor to sit w/The First Lady at the White House. @FLOTUS Your sincerity was truly inspiring. You/your team were so engaged to Channing's grieving father & brother & brought ideas/strategy to make the world a safer better place for the youth in America #JusticeForChanning pic.twitter.com/U7Pt6qTXzD— Billy Ray Cyrus (@billyraycyrus) November 19, 2019
Joshua agreed, saying it was "absolutely amazing" to see "how very empathetic and super sincere" the first lady was. "I know this is an issue that's near and dear to her heart for her personal reasons," he added. "Turns out it is for Billy Ray Cyrus as well."
Cyrus, 58, brought a framed photo of someone he lost to the White House.
"It's why he got involved in my brother's situation, he had a friend named Robbie in high school — they were best friends growing up — Robbie ended up dying by suicide," Joshua shared. "That's kind of what got Billy Ray into music, [he] got a guitar and started writing songs and everything."
The "Old Country Road" singer reached out to the Smith family in September. Joshua used to be a martial arts competitor and gained a following on social media, so when he shared the news of his brother's passing the story went viral.
"What happened was when my brother died I went to social media," he said, "that got the attention of the news media and then Billy Ray Cyrus woke up in his bed watching the news the very next day, and then Billy Ray Cyrus called me. From there we got together and met and he said, 'We're going to take this to the first lady.' Sure enough that was kind of the next step, that was how we ended up there."
As for what's next, Joshua wants to petition legislators to change state laws when it comes to consequences for cyberbullying.
"Most states don't have these laws and schools don't really have a definitive policy," he explained. "Students know if they go steal candy from a convenience store, they're charged with theft. Nobody really knows — Do we have cyberbullying stuff in place? What does it mean? How does it work? There's a big area of confusion that nobody, including faculty, knows. That's really what we want to do, get some more modern laws in place and raise more awareness about what it is and how it works."
The Smith family is facing disappointment this week after the Coffee County District Attorney's Office announced no criminal charges would be filed against the teens allegedly responsible for posting Channing's private messages. A video previously surfaced of DA Craig Northcott expressing how his faith does not allow him to recognize same-sex relationships and he has faced widespread criticism for saying he wouldn't prosecute domestic violence cases involving same-sex couples. Joshua said he contacted Northcott at the beginning of the case to express concern.
"I called him and told him that it concerned me that [my brother's case] wouldn't get the attention that it needed because of his views," Joshua said. "He assured me that wasn't the case and the news media misconstrued his Christian views."
Joshua said the family isn't surprised by the decision.
"It really wasn't that big of a shocker," he noted. "I think we all held our breath hoping he'd do the right thing."
Channing's friends and family started the #JusticeforChanning movement and Joshua will continue to keep his brother's memory alive. "For me, I'm trying to do an annual Kindness Walk, we did one about three or four weeks ago," he shared. "I want to have some things in Channing's honor that we do every single year in his memory."
Joshua is also interested in helping counsel families affected by cyberbullying.
"If I can help bridge the gap between parents, kids and bullies or anything in between," he said, "[I'll] help in the trenches."
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