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Sadie's Tree: A Plea for Kindness in Memory of a Bullied Teen

In an obituary read round the world, the family of Bedford, Pa., teen Sadie Riggs called out those who had bullied her and pleaded for people to be kind to one another. A year after Sadie’s death, lessons remain to be learned from her suicide.



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In many ways, Sadie fit the profile of a typical bullying victim. Teenage girls are more likely to be bullying victims than boys, says Robert Faris, associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis. And contrary to popular belief, most young people are not bullied by a sinister stranger. The bullies are people they know, often former friends or romantic interests. “Friends have more ammunition on each other. They have confidences that will later be revealed,” Faris says.  

What really set Sadie into a tailspin was a humiliating incident in the spring of 2017. Sadie had seen a sweatshirt in the lost and found in school for a while and figured no one was going to claim it. She dug it out and began wearing it. The owner saw her and reported her to the office. Sadie apologized and took it off. That should have been the end of the incident, but some kids harassed her in the halls, shouting, “Hey, Sadie, you need my shirt? You too poor to buy one? Take mine.”

From the girl’s bathroom, Sadie would call Sarah sobbing.

Her grandmother Stephanie coached her to stand up to the bullies. If they offered her their shirts, she should say, “Sure, go ahead and take your shirt off.” But Sadie couldn’t fight back — she only retreated further into herself. She refused to go to school, and Sarah received truancy notices. When she discovered that Sadie was cutting herself, Sarah took her to a counselor, and a doctor prescribed medication.

Even when Sadie dropped out of school, the bullies got to her on social media. “Only losers quit school,” they said. Sarah, who continued to monitor, says she contacted school officials, police and even other parents, but nothing stopped it. She says that parents of the kids sending nasty messages denied it and grew defensive.
 


Sadie's bedroom remains the same as she when she left it
 

In an interview with WJAC-TV shortly after Sadie’s death, Superintendent Allen Sell said out of respect for the family, he would only discuss bullying and suicide in general.

“One of our jobs as a school district is to try everything we can to prevent anyone from feeling that way. We would hope to be more successful,” Sell said.

He said the faculty investigates every accusation of bullying, and that the school cannot legally tell parents how their child’s alleged bully has been punished due to privacy rights and laws for minors.

On April 24, Sadie attempted suicide by overdosing on medication. She did not leave a note that time either. Sarah rushed out of her job in time to get her to the hospital. Then she was transferred to a psychiatric facility for five days.

Hoping she could still earn her high school diploma, Sarah sent her to a summer school program that treats children with emotional issues.  

She came home from her first day saying it was fine and gave Sarah a necklace she’d made at school. They packed lunch for the next day, and Sarah was hopeful. Maybe Sadie was turning a corner. Maybe they’d seen the end of the ridicule.   

That afternoon, Sarah took the girl and her dogs to a lake at Shawnee State Park, and Sadie jumped into the cold water, laughing and splashing. Sarah had no idea that the happy girl she was watching had given up and would soon become part of a disturbing uptick in suicides among teenage girls in America. While still a small portion of total suicides, the rate among girls between the ages of 10 and 14 tripled from 1999 to 2014. During the same period, the number of girls ages 15 to 24 who commit suicide jumped 53 percent, according the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Parents and relatives who have lost a teenager to suicide experience the same unfathomable pain, but each family reacts to the tragedy differently. Some grieving parents, like Anna and Danny Mendez of San Clemente, Calif., have devoted their lives to the crusade against bullying. Following the loss of their teenage son, Daniel, the Mendezes started the National Association of People Against Bullying, an educational and prevention group. They sued the alleged bullies in cases that were settled.

If the Mendezes turned outward through their advocacy, Sarah expressed her grief through the obituary, which was picked up by news outlets around the world. But after that initial blast of publicity, she turned inward, withdrawing from the public and many of her friends. She sunk into such a deep depression that she had to be hospitalized.  

“I didn’t want to sue anyone,” she says. “I wanted to get their butts in gear and help kids.”

Superintendent Sell says the school district is trying to be proactive about preventing bullying by introducing a social and emotional learning curriculum in the district that will emphasize values such as kindness, respect and perseverance.

“Obviously a year later, it’s terrible to lose a student,” he says. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”
 


 

Outside Bedford Senior High School on a spring day, several students spoke about life without their classmate and the suicide that was reported around the world.

“It was shocking,” says Nicholas Regos, a sophomore who knew Sadie. He says many kids at the school were deeply affected by her death, but he doesn’t think it has changed anything.

“Bullying will never end,” he says. “Bullies don’t know any other way.”

As he walks out the school, he greets Sherry Cain and her daughters, Madison, 17, and Abby, 16. The girls said they haven’t noticed much bullying at school.

But things look different through the eyes of their mother, a psychologist. Sherry sees the invisible scars bullying has left on some of the clients who come to her for help. She believes the anonymity of the internet can make it too easy for kids everywhere to be cruel to each other without realizing the devastating consequences. Sadie’s death has stayed with her.

“I pray for her family,” she says. “What if one person had been nicer to her? Maybe the outcome would have been different.”

Sarah also wonders — what if? What if she hadn’t run an errand that night? Would Sadie still be alive? What if she had brought Sadie along? “Don’t leave me,” Sadie had texted her. What if she’d run right home?

Sarah’s friends tell her that Sadie would have done the same thing another day, another time. That she shouldn’t blame herself for Sadie’s death.

But as she stands under the tree, Sarah can’t shake the feeling that she didn’t save her baby girl.

“Everyone asks me if I want to have a kid. No. I let Sadie down. She was my baby. I will keep adopting dogs, but I can’t have any more human kids. I’m scared I would have to go through this again, and I just can’t do it.”
 

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