Grieving parents of a teen who committed suicide after accessing suicide content from an iPad in class, fight for better internet safety in schools.
Judy and Andy Thomas from Aldershot lost their only child, Frankie, in 2018. The 15-year-old died of suicide using a method copied from a story she’d read about online several hours earlier — then found Frankie accessing had to similar material for at least nine months prior to school.
Now a coroner has backed their campaign and issued a report calling for national action over outdated guidelines and weak regulatory oversight from the Ministry of Education.
Judy, 63, a retired music teacher, said: “Our beloved daughter is gone and nothing can bring her back. But we don’t want more families to experience the same tragedy.”
Frankie was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age five shortly after starting elementary school. She was intelligent and funny, but struggled with social situations.
Judy said, “Frankie was quite a character. Absolutely fearless. She loved amusement park rides and ziplining. She had a lot of energy and enjoyed climbing, judo, boxing, horseback riding and windsurfing.
“It was a great privilege to be her parents and we were immensely proud of her. She had so much potential and we believed in her one hundred percent.’
Judy and Andy Thomas, pictured with 6-year-old Frankie, campaign for schools to introduce stricter internet safety rules after their daughter’s death
Frankie attended mainstream elementary school, but when she was ready to enter high school, her parents realized she was struggling with a large yard and a noisy environment.
She was initially sent to a small independent school, which was later closed. At the age of 12, she moved to a special education school.
Judy said, “Frankie liked a lot of typical teenage things. Her favorite band was Green Day. She played bass guitar, was in a band and dreamed of going to music school one day.
“But her disability made her extremely vulnerable to suggestion and she could be hasty and impulsive.
“Because she wasn’t a typical teenager, we had to be careful about certain things, including the Internet. At home, our family computer was password protected and she could only use it if Andy or I were sitting next to her.
“I informed her school that our daughter needed to be closely monitored over the Internet.”
‘A whole character’: Frankie’s parents fondly remembered their only daughter, pictured aged 12
Frankie, aged 7, had been diagnosed with autism and was ‘extremely vulnerable to suggestion’
On September 25, 2018, Frankie took a break from class, which happened occasionally when she needed some rest. She was sitting in a hallway with a school iPad, which had been instructed to research the subject of the lesson.
Instead, she was given more than two hours of unsupervised access to hardcore pornography and stories on the social storytelling platform Wattpad, four of which described suicide and self-harm.
Judy recalled, “That day Frankie came home in a seemingly happy mood. She played on her garden swing—something that eased her worries—before going to her bedroom.
“When I called her for dinner an hour later, she didn’t answer.”
The concerned mother went upstairs, where she found her daughter.
She said, ‘It was devastating. Our world ended that day.’
Judy called 999, and assisted by a neighbor, ordered CPR until paramedics arrived. But Frankie was pronounced dead after more CPR attempts at the hospital.
Judy continued, “Frankie had never talked about suicide, to us. We know that she had not used material at home that encouraged such thoughts.
“But the day after her death, the school sent us a list of the last websites she visited on the school laptop. We realized she’d been watching X-rated content and reading stories about self-harm and suicide. The last story reflected her death at home later, just hours later.”
Frankie’s October 2018 cremation was attended by more than 200 people. The service started with her favorite Star Wars music and her beloved Labrador dog Lucy went to the chapel in front of the coffin.
Afterwards, Judy and Andy, an IT expert, discovered that there was a need for an inquest into her death.
They became amateur detectives to gather evidence.
Judy said: “The school had a policy that promised students would be safe online. And there was equipment to monitor internet usage and sound the alarm if children visited inappropriate websites. But crucially, we discovered that the system was not properly connected.
“This meant it didn’t alarm when students visited dangerous websites.”
Judy and Andy also had the school laptops forensically examined.
Frankie pictured as a baby with her dad Andy and in happier times as a four-year-old
This revealed that during her school days, for at least nine months before her death, Frankie had visited graphic sites about self-harm and ways to commit suicide.
They also found that school iPads were still not connected to the alert system a year after the couple lost their daughter.
Frankie’s inquest finally went through in October, when Surrey Assistant Coroner Karen Henderson told the couple they had done everything they could to protect their daughter during her lifetime.
But Ms Henderson said the school’s failures and Wattpad’s “lack of robustness” about removing inappropriate content “contributed more than minimally” to Frankie’s death.
Wattpad is not blocked by schools and in some schools Key Stage 4 students are actively encouraged to use it.
The coroner wondered if the platform’s 600 moderators were enough to check the one billion pieces of content.
The coroner also said there was “a lack of adequate leadership” from the Department of Education when it came to implementing e-security in all schools, which was a bit like the “wild west”.
A suicide sentence was recorded.
Judy said, “We fear countless other schools across the country have similarly poor internet security.”
Frankie, aged 7 with her beloved dog Lucy, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism
This month, the coroner wrote to the Department of Education demanding action to address “inadequate regulatory oversight” and “outdated guidelines” regarding internet safety systems in all schools, with standard advice on which sites to block.
A report on preventing future deaths related to Frankie’s death has been sent to the Education Secretary, who has 56 days to respond with proposed measures to address the concerns.
Judy said, “The internet can be an extremely dangerous place, especially for people with special educational needs, like our daughter.
‘We believe that every child should be able to use the internet safely during class hours. We want schools to be required by law to regularly review online safety policies and verify that monitoring and warning equipment is working properly – in the same way as fire alarms.
“Our Frankie wasn’t safe at school. And because of that, she eventually lost her life. What happened to her was a catastrophic failure.’
The couple hope their daughter’s death will be a wake-up call for schools and the Ministry of Education.
Judy said, “Frankie was bigger than life, and such a big part of our lives. We miss her terribly and still can’t believe she’s gone.
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