Looking back, there were clues — signs that the two eighth-graders in rural Minnesota felt isolated, estranged from their classmates, bullied perhaps, alone except for each other, family members said. And there were signs that the two were planning something.
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But no one close to the two 14-year-olds — Haylee Fentress, a bubbly redhead, or her best friend, Paige Moravetz, a hockey goalie with an infectious smile — had any idea how desperate things had become until it was too late. Just how desperate became tragically clear Saturday morning when, after a sleepover at Haylee’s house, the two girls hanged themselves in what family members and authorities believe was a suicide pact. Their bodies, along with brief suicide notes, were found by Haylee’s mother, Tracy Morrison.
“There had been times that she posted things” on her Facebook page, Haylee’s cousin Hillary Settle told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in an exclusive interview Thursday. Just 10 days before their deaths, Haylee had written, “I’m so nervous and I just want to get it over with,” according to Settle, adding, “I love you, Paige.”
“Maybe we should have paid closer attention,” Settle said. “Maybe everyone should have paid closer attention.”
Paige’s uncle, Brett Behnke, linked into the same interview, agreed: “We need to pay more attention to these things.”
Targets of bullying?
The deaths of the two girls have shocked the small community of Marshall, in rural Minnesota, and raised questions about whether the two had been the target of bullying. Officials at the Marshall Middle School both girls attended have declined to comment on the bullying allegations.
But there is evidence that there was friction between the girls and their classmates. Just weeks before their deaths, family members say, Haylee was expelled from school after getting into a fight to defend Paige when other students allegedly harassed her.
Related: Minnesota middle school mourns double suicide
“I don’t know what to do,” Haylee wrote in a Facebook posting to her aunt after the expulsion. “I’m so sad and feel lonely. I hope I get to be with my friends again soon.”
And in a written statement, Haylee’s mother, Tracy Morrison, and her older sister, Ashley George, made it clear that they believe bullying played a critical role in the girls’ deaths. “We need to stop pretending this isn’t happening or that is just a cry for attention because obviously it is not,” they wrote. “This needs to be talked about and we need to try to prevent this by teaching kids in school, community and at home. They need to know they are not alone. It shouldn’t take more tragedies to realize this.”
The two girls became fast friends about a year ago, soon after Haylee arrived in Marshall from Indiana. Haylee, described as outgoing, was still grappling with her parents’ divorce two years earlier and had previously been a target of ridicule from her classmates, her cousin, Patrick Martin, told TODAY. Though far from obese, Haylee was ridiculed over her weight, and felt self-conscious about her flaming red hair and her nose, which she believed was too big, he said.
Paige, described by her uncle, Brett Behnke, as a “star” hockey player, had taken Haylee under her wing at Marshall, even teaching her how to skate. Soon, they became exceptionally close, Martin told Vieira.
Ironically, Martin says, family members now wonder whether that very closeness, their deep affection for one another, might actually have made the pair feel even more isolated from the rest of the community. “Just by different comments and suggestions that they made, it seems to look that way now,” Martin told TODAY.Video: Bullying behind teen girls’ suicide pact? (on this page)
What is clear in hindsight is that over the past several weeks, the two girls began to withdraw from everyone except each other. “Just looking back at the way that they acted over the last several weeks, there [were] changes in their behavior,” Martin said. “I guess they went out of their way to make it so that nobody was going to be aware of this beforehand.”
But if there were clues, they were the sort of clues that adults sometimes find hard to decipher, said Paige’s uncle, Brett Behnke. “All kids that are ... in that age group are searching for acceptance, and friends are important to them,” Behnke told Vieira. “We’ve all been there, and as a parent it’s hard for us to see things that we can manage, but their emotions are not mature enough to handle yet.”
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Now family members are left to speculate about the reasons behind the girls’ suicides: “I don’t believe ... that we’ll ever have a definite answer,” Martin said. The notes they left behind offered no answers — only a touching glimpse at the way the girls saw themselves. In Haylee’s note, she requested that she be buried in a pink casket and that her mourners wear pink. And she had one more request, Martin said. Haylee wanted “everybody to … pray for her and Paige … she really wasn’t looking for any sympathy.”
Paige was buried yesterday; services for Haylee are scheduled for today, with a separate memorial planned Saturday for family members in Indiana. And while their families may never completely understand why the two girls felt they had to die, they say they will always remember them as loving and tender young people.
“I remember Paige for her great personality, her star hockey ability,” Behnke said. “And I remember that big smile and how huggable and lovable she was.”
As for Haylee, “I would like her remembered the way I am going to remember her,” Martin said, his voice breaking slightly. “And that is a very intelligent and outgoing and loving, caring, bubbly, beautiful young woman.”
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