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.
The backyard of Sarah Smith's home near Bedford was where she found her 15-year-old niece Sadie Riggs hanging from an elm tree.
Every morning, Sarah Smith lets her dogs outside and waits under an elm tree on the edge of the back yard. It looks like all the other trees on the serene wooded property outside of Bedford, but this one will always be Sadie’s tree.
Sarah has replayed the scene again and again since the evening of June 19, 2017. She went into town for an errand, leaving her 15-year-old niece whom she cared for at home. When she returned, she looked everywhere but couldn’t find Sadie in the rambling farmhouse.
“Dad, I can’t find Sadie,” she yelled to her father Jeff. They headed to the back yard with flashlights, running straight to the enormous elm where a ladder always rested on the trunk. Sadie was a tomboy who loved to climb the tree, inviting her cats to follow.
In the frantic search, the family was relieved when a flashlight illuminated Sadie in the branches.
“Sadie, get down here right now,” Sarah called out, assuming she was still mad about being left at home instead of riding along on the Monday night errand.
“Sadie, I mean it.”
The girl was strangely still. Then, as a small gust of wind blew, Sadie twisted around so they could see her face.
Jeff knew right away. “She’s not standing there. She’s hung.”
Jeff climbed the ladder and cut the extension cord wrapped around Sadie’s neck. On the ground, Sarah frantically gave her CPR, enough to coax back a faint pulse.
“You can do it. You’re strong,” Sarah told her. She had told her that many times, trying to prop up her spirits after some of the kids at her high school had bullied her.
But this time, Sarah’s words didn’t help. The teenager was pronounced dead at 11:38 p.m. at UPMC Bedford Memorial Hospital.
Sadie Riggs and her story might have been lost in the rising tide of adolescent suicide had it not been for a bold decision made by the people who loved her.
In an extraordinary obituary that ran locally and reverberated around the world on the internet, Sarah and her mother, Stephanie Wallace, called out the bullies.
Sadie had a tough life and until a recent incident at school she handled everything life served her. For a young lady so excited about going to the High School things sure went terribly wrong for her. For the bullies involved, please know you were effective in making her feel worthless. That is all between you and God now, but please know that it is not too late to change your ways.
In lieu of flowers, the family of Sadie ask that you be kind to one another.
In the past year, Sarah and her family have been touched by acts of kindness — a memory tree from an anonymous woman from Chicago, two local businesses posting outdoor signs saying “Be Kind for Sadie’s Sake,” funeral donations from the community, flowers from a fellow student. There’s also been contrition — one teen apologized for what he said to Sadie. He didn’t know it would end this way.
Even in death, the internet can be merciless. “I’m glad she’s dead,” another boy wrote on Snapchat. Sarah took a screenshot of the image before he took it down.
As she fights through the fog of sadness and deep depression, Sarah, 29, tries to hold on to Sadie’s memory by keeping the girl’s room as she left it. Sadie’s cherished lamp remains at her bedside, glowing orange through a motorcycle motif on the shade. All of her teenage mementos are there, from her softball glove to her American Girl doll to the shells she collected on the beach. Sarah plans to create a memorial for Sadie under her tree.
For now, Sarah sits on a bench underneath it and looks up at the sky as she wonders — Why, Sadie? Why did you do it?
Sarah Smith wants to create a memorial for Sadie Riggs under the elm tree where the teen girl committed suicide
Sadie Riggs did not leave a suicide note. Piecing together the reasons why a young person commits suicide can be confounding. Bullying experts cite a correlation between bullying and suicide, but they say it isn’t a direct causal relationship; most bullied teens do not kill themselves.
“Kids who took their lives were often bullied or cyberbullied. That’s one factor, but there are atypical stressors too — depression or trauma,” says Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University.
Such was the case in Sadie’s short life.
Sarah bonded with the girl long before signing the legal documents that tied them together as a family. Knowing she came from a broken family, Sarah first befriended 7-year-old Sadie through the afterschool program where her sister Alicia worked. Sadie was no longer living with her mother Beverly.
When Alicia and Sadie’s father Eric became a couple, Sadie became part of the family, and Sarah and Alicia took her on family vacations to the Outer Banks and Myrtle Beach. The first time the girl saw the ocean, she cried out. “There’s so much water!” She hung out with Sarah on weekends, and in January 2017, Sarah was thrilled to become her legal guardian.
Sadie in a black-and-white dress she picked out for the high school homecoming dance
After being teased in middle school for her red hair and tomboy clothes, the fresh-faced teen spent the summer of 2016 looking forward to a fresh start at Bedford Senior High School.
As the school year started, she seemed to settle in like any other freshman, counting down the days to the homecoming dance. At a bridal shop, she picked out a black-and-white spaghetti strap dress with a poofy skirt, a treat for a girl who usually wore hand-me-downs. With makeup and curls in her hair, Sadie beamed as she looked in the mirror. “I look like I’m 16.”
But when she came back from the dance that evening, she felt letdown. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be.” She didn’t have a bad time, but it wasn’t the magical night she had envisioned.
The teasing picked up again after she told a boy she had a crush on him. Sarah says most of the ridicule happened at school, which reflects research findings — most bullying occurs in person as verbal abuse, with cyberbullying being somewhat less common.
“They said she was fat — she starved herself and lost 23 pounds,” Sarah says. “They called her a whore, a red-headed she-devil, a bum, a low-life.” When they made fun of her hair, she cut it short and donated it to charity, depriving herself of what she considered her best feature.
Sarah Smith was not only Sadie’s aunt, but in January 2017, she became the girl’s legal guardian.
Sarah, who works as a cook at a restaurant and is a farm worker, says, “I’m a single mother and I couldn’t afford to buy her nice clothes.”
After escaping the bullies in the school hallways, the insults followed Sadie home in the evening via Snapchat, Instagram and Kik. Sarah monitored the accounts, and she wrote back as soon as she saw a cruel comment. Knock it off, she told them, or she would go to the school.
While teens who experienced only in-person bullying or only cyberbullying were no more likely to attempt suicide than those who weren’t bullied in either manner, Hinduja’s study found a startling compound effect. Teens who experience both forms of bullying are 11 times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-bullied peers. “The kids think there is no escape,” he says. “They’re living it at school, and they’re living it at home. It’s very painful.”
Even when Sarah forbid Sadie from going onto the internet, Sadie would sneak back on. Like a passenger who can’t avoid looking at a gruesome car crash, she couldn’t stop reading the mean things circulating about her. When she blocked people on Snapchat, they would pop up again under a fake name. It was like a cruel game of Whac-a-Mole.
“Sadie had a lot of problems, but they didn’t have to bully her and push her even further,” her grandmother Stephanie says.
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.”