— Ashlynn Conner was a classic, small-town, All-American girl — an honor roll student who loved cheerleading and stray cats and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.
But at her school in Ridge Farm, Ill., Ashlynn’s classmates taunted her for two years, teasing her for cutting her hair by calling her “pretty boy.” Even when she grew her hair back, the taunting continued. And on Nov. 10, she came home and told her mother school kids were calling her “a slut.”
“She’s like, ‘I don’t even know what that is,’ ” Ashlynn’s mother, Stacy Conner, told NBC News.
And that may have been the trouble — apparently confused and feeling alone, Ashlynn took own life by hanging herself from a knitted scarf on a clothing rod in her bedroom closet Nov. 11.
That she was just 10 years old when she died sent shock waves through the community. The tragic death put a new focus on the issue of school bullying, one that has now widened from high school to middle school to elementary school — Ashlynn was only three months into fifth grade when she ended her short life.
‘She wanted to live’
Stacy Conner appeared on TODAY Friday and recounted how she tried to counsel Ashlynn as well as deal with teachers and school officials. Fighting back tears, she told David Gregory she had talked to the school principal about the taunting, but “not right away — I would give (Ashlynn) advice and guidance as to how I thought she should be able to handle bullying.
“She never talked about killing herself or hurting herself.”
Appearing with Conner on TODAY, Kim Wright, Ashlynn’s aunt, said Ashlynn seemed full of life right up to the end. “She wanted to live,” Wright said. “She was talking (the day of her suicide) about she was in a Thanksgiving mood and she asked her mom how much snow we would get this winter … she thought it would be a lot.”
But the day before, Ashlynn had come home from school particularly upset after classmates called her “fat”, “ugly,” and “a slut.” Stacy Conner told NBC News she didn’t address the “slut” slur because “she was 10 years old; she’s too young to know this stuff.”
Her mother asked her if she had told an adult at school she was being harassed. “She went to three different teachers, and they told her, ‘Ashlynn, you need to go sit down and stop tattling,’ ” Conner said.
Ashlynn then asked if she could be home-schooled. Her mother told her that wasn’t possible, but promised she would talk to school officials on Monday (school was closed that Friday in observance of Veterans Day).
“In the past, if I had any problems after talking to her about it ... I’d go talk to the principal and it was taken care of,” Conner told Gregory.
Kim Wright added: “The school has a policy where they say things are to happen (when bullying occurs). The first thing is the child is to tell the kids ‘no’; the second one is they are to walk away, and the third one is to tell the teacher. Ashlynn did all three of those things.”
But that Friday night Ashlynn was found by her older sister dead from strangulation.
‘You can’t come back’
County Sheriff Patrick Harshorn told the Danville Commercial News his department is investigating the allegations of bullying, but “we haven’t uncovered anything so severe that it would result in someone taking their own life.” Conner said she doesn’t believe the bullying allegations are being taken seriously.
At Ashlynn’s funeral, the community of 900 turned out en masse to mourn the death of the fifth-grader. In the aftermath, her young classmates are struggling to find answers; some may not be able to even process that Ashlynn won’t be returning to class.
But Ashlynn’s friend and classmate Kristina Fehr told NBC News the lesson isn’t lost on her. “It’s a lesson to other kids that death is forever, and you can’t just die and come back,” Kristina said.
Appearing with Ashlynn’s loved ones on TODAY, psychiatrist and TODAY contributor Dr. Gail Saltz said that parents must stay on top of their children’s feelings of desperation — particularly children as young as Ashlynn.
“If your child is extremely upset, it’s OK to ask them if they have any thought about killing themselves,” Saltz said. “Parents often … don’t want to bring it up, they don’t want to think about it, and they think they might be suggesting something to a child that they haven’t thought of already. But that’s really a myth.
“You need to get them immediate help, immediate evaluation, because children, unlike adults, can look depressed one moment and happy and OK the next. So it’s hard to detect when they are actually depressed. They can be impulsive and act on something too soon.”