Grieving parents of a teenager who took her own life after accessing suicide content from a classroom iPad are fighting for improved internet safety in schools.
Judy and Andy Thomas from Aldershot, lost their only child, Frankie, in 2018. The 15-year-old died from suicide using a method copied from a story she read about online only hours earlier – and subsequently discovered Frankie had been accessing similar material for at least nine months prior while at school.
Now a coroner has backed their campaign, issuing a report demanding national action over outdated guidance and weak regulatory oversight from the Education Department.
Judy, 63, a retired music teacher, said: ‘Our beloved daughter is gone and nothing can bring her back. But we don’t want any more families to endure the same tragedy.’
Frankie was diagnosed with high functioning autism soon after starting primary school, aged five. She was intelligent and funny, but struggled with social situations.
Judy said: ‘Frankie was quite a character. Absolutely fearless. She loved theme park rides and zipwires. She had lots of energy and enjoyed climbing, judo, boxing, horse riding, and windsurfing.
‘It was a total privilege to be her parents and we were extremely proud of her. She had such potential and we believed in her one hundred per cent.’
Judy and Andy Thomas, pictured with Frankie aged 6, are campaigning for schools to adopt more stringent rules on internet safety in the wake of their daughter’s death
Frankie attended a mainstream primary, but when she was ready to move to secondary education her parents realised she struggled with a large-sized site and a noisy environment.
She was initially sent to a small independent school, which later closed. Aged 12, she moved to a special educational needs school.
Judy said: ‘Frankie was into many typical teenage things. Her favourite band was Green Day. She played bass guitar, was in a band and dreamed of going to music college one day.
‘But her disability made her extremely vulnerable to suggestion and she could be rash and impulsive.
‘Because she wasn’t a typical teen, we had to take great care with certain things, including the internet. At home, our family computer was password protected, and she could only use it if Andy or myself were sitting beside her.
‘I informed her school that our daughter needed to be closely monitored on the internet and was assured she would be.’
‘Quite a 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 occasionally happened when she needed some quiet time. She sat in a corridor with a school iPad, having been told to research the lesson subject.
Instead, over two hours while unsupervised, she accessed hardcore pornography and stories on 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 soothed her anxieties – before going up to her bedroom.
‘When I called her down to dinner an hour later she didn’t reply.’
The concerned mother went upstairs, where she found her daughter.
She said: ‘It was devastating. Our world ended that day.’
Judy dialled 999, and helped by a neighbour, administered CPR until paramedics arrived. But Frankie was declared dead after more resuscitation attempts in hospital.
Judy continued: ‘Frankie had never spoken of suicide, to us. We know she hadn’t accessed material encouraging such thoughts at home.
‘But the day after her death, the school sent us a list of the last websites she accessed on the school laptop. We realised she’d been looking at X-rated content, and reading stories describing self harm and suicide. The final story mirrored her death later at home, just hours later.’
Frankie’s cremation in October 2018 was attended by over 200 people. The service started with her favourite Star Wars music, and her beloved Labrador dog Lucy preceding the coffin into the chapel.
Afterwards, Judy and Andy, an IT expert, discovered there would have to be an inquest into her death.
They turned amateur detectives to gather evidence.
Judy said: ‘The school had policies in place, promising that pupils would be safe online. And there was equipment to monitor use of the internet, and raise alerts if children accessed inappropriate websites. But crucially, we discovered, the system wasn’t connected properly.
‘This meant that it didn’t raise alerts when pupils accessed dangerous websites.’
Judy and Andy also had the school laptops forensically examined.
Frankie pictured as a baby with her father Andy and in happier times as a four-year-old
This revealed Frankie had been accessing graphic sites discussing self harm and ways to commit suicide, while she was at school, for at least nine months before her death.
They also discovered that school iPads were still not connected to the alert system a year after the couple lost their daughter.
Frankie’s inquest finally went ahead in October, at which 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 failures of the school and Wattpad’s ‘lack of robustness’ over removing inappropriate content ‘more than minimally contributed’ to Frankie’s death.
Wattpad is not blocked by schools and in some schools Key Stage 4 pupils are actively encouraged to use it.
The coroner questioned whether the platform’s 600 moderators were sufficient to police its one billion pieces of content.
The coroner also said there was ‘a lack of adequate direction’ from the Education Department when it came to implementing e-security at all schools, which seemed a bit like the ‘Wild West’.
A suicide verdict was recorded.
Judy said: ‘We fear that countless other schools across the country have similarly poor internet safety.’
Frankie, at the age of 7 with her beloved dog Lucy, was diagnosed with high functioning autism
This month the coroner wrote to the Education Department to demand action to address ‘inadequate regulatory oversight’ and ‘outdated guidance’ relating to internet safety systems in all schools, with standard advice on what sites should be blocked.
A Prevention of Future Deaths report pertaining to Frankie’s death has been sent to the Education Minister, who has 56 days to respond with suggested actions to address concerns.
Judy said: ‘The internet can be an extremely dangerous place, particularly for those with special educational needs, like our daughter.
‘We believe every child should be safe on the internet during classroom hours. We want schools to be legally required to review online safety policies on a regular basis, and check that monitoring and alert equipment is working properly – in the same way that happens with fire alarms.
‘Our Frankie was not safe at school. And ultimately she lost her life because of that. 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 Education Department.
Judy said: ‘Frankie was larger than life, and such a big part of our lives. We miss her terribly and still can’t believe she’s gone.
For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch. See www.samaritans.org for details