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Video: Bullying behind teen girls’ suicide pact?

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    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: But let us begin this half-hour with a tragic story out of Minnesota . Two girls , just 14 years old, took their own lives at a slumber party. In a moment their families will speak out in an exclusive live interview. But first, NBC 's Mike Taibbi has the story. Mike , good morning to you.

    MIKE TAIBBI reporting: Good morning, Meredith . You know, there weren't enough clues left behind to know precisely what pushed these two young girls , both students at the Marshall Middle School , to commit suicide . But that decision has left this rural community some three hours southwest of Minneapolis in shock.

    They were the best of friends, almost inseparable: Paige Moravetz and Haylee Fentress , both 14 years old, both in eighth grade, and both so distraught they decided to end their own lives in what some believe was a suicide pact . Haylee 's heartbroken cousins remember a lovely, caring young girl .

    Ms. HILLARY SETTLE (Suicide Victim's Cousin): She was one of the people in my life that I knew if you ever needed something, that Haylee would do anything she could to help you.

    TAIBBI: Paige and Haylee had a sleepover last weekend. It was Haylee 's mom who found both girls dead early Saturday morning. They'd hanged themselves. The girls became close when Haylee moved to Minnesota from Indiana just over a year ago. Paige was a talented hockey goalie and was teaching Haylee to skate.

    Mr. PATRICK MARTIN (Suicide Victim's Cousin): The way she expressed her affection for Paige , that they were sort of one in the same. I think Haylee found somebody that was kind of herself.

    TAIBBI: But others at Marshall Middle School were apparently not as friendly. Haylee messaged her aunt on Facebook saying, "I'm so done with people here. They're so two-faced and mean to me it's not even funny." Haylee 's family says she was ridiculed over her weight and even her red hair. Her mother and sister were too grief-stricken to talk on camera; instead, they issued this statement about the bullying they say Haylee endured. "We need to stop pretending this isn't happening or that it's just a cry for attention because obviously it is not. It shouldn't take more tragedies to realize this."

    Tracy Fentress

    Ashley George

    TAIBBI: Last year the case of Phoebe Prince drew national attention to the issue of bullying. School officials here would not talk about reports that these two girls were bullied.

    Mr. KLINT WILLERT (Marshall, Minnesota Public Schools Superintendent): Whenever you lose a child, along with that child goes hopes, dreams and aspirations.

    TAIBBI: Both girls left suicide notes, but few answers. Haylee 's family says she was recently expelled after breaking up a fight that involved Paige . In another Facebook message to her aunt, Haylee wrote, "I don't know what to do! I am so sad and feel lonely, and I hope I get to be with my friends again soon." In the digital age, cruelty and gossip can spread faster and further than ever; a fact not lost on the counselors helping other students deal with their grief.

    Ms. CINDY MANTHEY (Marshall, Minnesota School Psychologist): We talked today at school about just because it's something that someone texted or put on Facebook , it's not fact.

    TAIBBI: Paige was laid to rest yesterday. Haylee 's funeral will take place here today -- later on today with another separate family service in Indiana on

    Saturday. Meredith: Mike Taibbi , thank you very much . We are joined exclusively by Patrick Martin and Hillary Settle , Haylee Fentress ' cousins; as well as Paige Moravetz 's uncle Brett Behnke and his son Andy . Good morning to you all, and our deepest sympathies.

    VIEIRA: Good morning. Thank you.

    Mr. MARTIN: Good morning.

    Mr. BRETT BEHNKE (Suicide Victim's Uncle): Good morning.

    Mr. ANDY BEHNKE: Patrick , if I could start with you. As you and your family try and understand why Haylee would take her own life, have you found any clues in the suicide note that she left behind ?

    VIEIRA: I don't believe or know that we'll ever have a definite answer. She really kept the note focused on wanting everybody to feel -- you know, pray for her and Paige . And she really wasn't looking for any sympathy.

    Mr. MARTIN: Hillary , Haylee wasn't just your cousin, you were very close to her. You were close buddies, actually. You knew that she was going through a tough time. She had talked to you about being bullied at school, she'd recently being expel -- been expelled, she was dealing with the aftermath of her parents' divorce, among other things. She said she wanted to go back to Indiana . Looking back now at all of this, is there anything she said to you -- I know you spoke to her a week before she took her life -- that now raises itself as a red flag in your own mind, that, 'Oh, gee, I wish I had paid more attention to that'?

    VIEIRA: There had been times that she had posted things, actually as late as the 6th, that after this all happened that we went back and we looked at it and we realized, yeah, maybe we probably should have paid closer attention , that everyone should have probably paid closer attention .

    Ms. SETTLE: What was it that she posted as late as the 6th that you now wish you had paid closer attention to?

    VIEIRA: She put a status update that said, "I'm so nervous and I just want to get it over with. And I love you, Paige ."

    Ms. SETTLE: Brett , talk to me about your niece Paige . From what I've read, she was a star athlete, a hockey player. In retrospect, were there any warning signs that you missed?

    VIEIRA: Same for us. After -- I wasn't on her Facebook , but we did get access to it, my daughter did, and, you know, there were things that she was sad about. But, you know, I guess you got to pay more attention to those sort of things.

    Mr. B. BEHNKE: Yeah. Had she been bullied at school as well?

    VIEIRA: You know, all kids that are 13 and 14 or in that age group are searching for acceptance, and their friends are important to them. And, you know, we've all been there. And as a parent, it's hard for us to see things that are -- that we can manage, but their emotions are not mature enough to handle yet.

    Mr. B. BEHNKE: Yeah, Patrick , you and your family believe that the girls had been planning this for a long time. Why do you think that?

    VIEIRA: Just looking back at the way that they acted over the last several weeks as far as changes in their behavior, kind of -- I guess they went out of their way to make it so that nobody was going to be aware of this beforehand, I think. I really believe that. And those are the type of things, of course, that we missed, but can see in retrospect. But it's just, I have to believe myself that they had thought this out, you know, pretty thoroughly because I just noticed little changes in the way they were -- or actually, I should say Haylee was talking or posting things on the Internet . It seems to me now that they were going out of their way to keep this to themselves.

    Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, Patrick , you also told one of our producers that you think the girls -- your family now believes maybe the girls felt more strongly about themselves, more than just a friendship, and they were confused by those feelings and maybe felt a little ostracized. Is that correct?

    VIEIRA: We want to believe so. I mean, just by different comments and suggestions that they'd made, it seems to look that way now. And, you know, of course when the situation like this arises, you're going to think of every possible scenario. I don't want to say that we have anything that, you know, tells us that that's definitely the case. But, you know, there are things that suggest that.

    Mr. MARTIN: Before I let you go, I want to give you the opportunity to tell us just a little bit about how you want your nieces remembered. Brett , if I could start with you.

    VIEIRA: I'll remember Paige for her great personality and her star hockey ability, and remember that big smile and how huggable and lovable she was.

    Mr. B. BEHNKE: And, Patrick , how do you want Haylee to remember...

    VIEIRA: Yeah, very charismatic.

    Mr. A. BEHNKE: Patrick , how would you like Haylee remembered?

    VIEIRA: Well, I just, you know, I would like her remembered the way I'm going to remember her, and that is a very intelligent and outgoing and loving, caring, bubbly, beautiful young woman .

    Mr. MARTIN: We greatly appreciate you being here this morning. Again, please accept our condolences. Patrick Martin and Hillary Settle , Brett and Andy Behnke , thank you all.

    VIEIRA: Thank you.

    Ms. SETTLE: Thank you.

    Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

    Mr. A. BEHNKE: Thank you.

    Mr. B. BEHNKE:

TODAY contributor
updated 4/21/2011 10:29:59 AM ET 2011-04-21T14:29:59

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.”

Fast friends
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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