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Video: Was bullied 10-year-old driven to suicide?

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    DAVID GREGORY, co-host: We are back now, almost 7:43, with a very difficult story, the tragic story out of Illinois . A young girl just 10 years old took her own life, and her family believes that bullying in school is to blame. We're going to talk to that girl's mother in just a moment. But first, here's NBC 's Janet Shamlian . She's in Ridge Farm , Illinois . She's got details this morning. Janet , good morning to you.

    JANET SHAMLIAN reporting: David , good morning. You know, we've seen so many of these bullying cases lately, but they tend to be teenagers in high school , kids 14, 15, 16 years old, and occasionally it happens younger, in middle school . But what happened here in rural Illinois , a small town of just 900 people, is almost beyond belief. A 10 -year-old girl, a fifth-grader here in this elementary school , has taken her own life, and her family believes it is because of bullying . A colorful tribute amid blue skies on what can only be described as a gray day as balloons are launched from the grave site of 10-year-old Ashlynn Conner , a fifth-grade honor student described as an all- American girl who loved cheerleading and had dreams of being a veterinarian. Her untimely death, her family says, was a result of bullying in her elementary school .

    Ms. STACY CONNER (Ashlynn's Mother): Her last words to me were, 'Mommy, I love you.' And she hugged me. I told her I love her too.

    SHAMLIAN: Her family is grief-stricken. So, too, is this small town among the cornfields. Three hundred of its 900 residents turned out to say goodbye.

    Ms. MICHAILA BALDWIN (Ashlynn's Sister): No one should have to feel like they have to take their own life because of bullying . It needs to stop now.

    SHAMLIAN: According to her mom, Ashlynn has complained of being tormented by classmates since the third grade.

    Ms. CONNER: Some girls at school had called her a slut and she's like, 'I don't know what that is.' I didn't even explain it to her because she -- 10 years old. She's too young to know that stuff.

    SHAMLIAN: But what would have driven a 10-year-old girl to take her own life? Conner says her daughter was in tears last Thursday after school , saying she'd been harassed on the playground, and asking that she start being home-schooled. The next evening, the unimaginable. Ashlynn 's 14-year-old sister found Ashlynn hanging from a scarf in her bedroom closet. Conner says Ashlynn tried to talk to her teachers about being bullied.

    Ms. CONNER: She went to three different teachers and they told her, ' Ashlynn , you need to go sit down and stop tattling.'

    SHAMLIAN: School officials would not comment, but the district released this

    statement: "We know there is a great deal of discussion about what role ' bullying ' may have played in this tragedy. We are confident that the police will shed light on this matter."

    SHAMLIAN: Authorities say they're treating the case as a suicide and are investigating the bullying reports. At Ashlynn 's funeral, friends, children who would seem to be too young to be dealing with the suicide of a classmate, struggled with what had happened.

    Miss MADISON BAKER (Ashlynn's Friend): I think it's sad and -- I don't know.

    Miss KRISTINA FEHR (Ashlynn's Friend): It's a lesson to other kids that death is forever and you can't just die and come back.

    SHAMLIAN: Ashlynn 's death has devastated this community. And here at her elementary school , the fact that she's not coming back is a concept many of these children are too young to even understand. Such a tragic story. David :

    GREGORY: Janet Shamlian in Illinois for us this morning. Thank you. Stacy Conner is with us exclusively this morning, along with Ashlynn 's aunt Kim Wright . Gail Saltz is also here, a psychiatrist and TODAY contributor. Ladies, good morning to all of you. I -- Stacy , I don't think I've got the right words, as a dad of young kids, to tell you how sorry I am that we're having this conversation. I just hope that talking about it publicly does some good. And I know that's why you're here. Did you have any impression that your daughter was so hurt, was in such a horrible place, that she would actually take her own life?

    Ms. CONNER: No. I'm sorry.

    GREGORY: Don't be sorry. I don't think anybody expects you to get through this without crying. You knew she was hurting. You knew it was bad, but ever to this extent?

    Ms. CONNER: Not to this extent. She never talked about killing herself or hurting herself.

    GREGORY: That part of it was just a surprise to you?

    Ms. CONNER: It was.

    Ms. KIM WRIGHT: She wanted to live. She was talking that day about how she was in the Thanksgiving mood.

    GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. WRIGHT: And how she asked her mom if -- how much snow we would get this winter, and she thought it'd be a lot.

    GREGORY: So what was it? What happened that would make her snap like that?

    Ms. CONNER: I really don't know for sure. I just know that the -- that night before it happened she'd gotten a phone call from a friend.

    GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CONNER: I overheard her phone call . She was explaining to this friend that she had talked to me, and she was telling me about the three girls that had been picking on her that -- at school that day. And she told this friend, 'I asked my mom if I could be home-schooled and my mom said no.' And then after that, I quit listening in on the conversation, but she sounded like she was almost fine with it...

    GREGORY: Right.

    Ms. CONNER: ...because, you know, she wasn't upset when she was talking to this friend.

    GREGORY: You did go and talk to the principal . You talked to principals at school . Did you do that right away?

    Ms. CONNER: Before, in the past.

    GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CONNER: Not right away. I would give her advice and guidance as to how I thought she should be able -- as to how I thought she would be able to handle bullying .

    GREGORY: Right. As we all tell our kids. Tell the person...

    Ms. CONNER: Right.

    GREGORY: ...you know, that you don't like it; maybe tell an adult. Do you feel like the school did an adequate job dealing with it?

    Ms. CONNER: In the past, yes. Because if I had any problems after talking to her...

    GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. CONNER: ...any more problems after talking to her about it before, she'd come and tell me and then I'd go and talk to the principal and, you know, it was taken care of.

    GREGORY: But more recently?

    Ms. CONNER: No...

    GREGORY: Kim , you're shaking your head, too. You don't think it was dealt with right?

    Ms. WRIGHT: Well, we have to back up a little bit, though, because, you know, the last couple weeks how things have happened, it's kind of sporadic. And Stacy -- she would come to Stacy , Stacy would talk to her . And then Thursday was when she'd come home and said that she wanted to be home-schooled...

    GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. WRIGHT: ...and Stacy said no, 'Let's' -- she talked to her about it. She says, 'We'll go to the -- we'll go to the principal on Monday and we'll get this worked out.' And of course, Monday didn't come. They didn't have school Friday. So -- but the school has a policy where they say that they -- three things are to happen.

    GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. WRIGHT: The first thing is that the child is to tell the kids no, stop, tell the bully no. Second one, then they're to walk away . And the third one is that they're to tell the teacher.


    Ms. WRIGHT: Ashlynn did all three of those things.

    GREGORY: Gail , very quickly...

    Dr. GAIL SALTZ: Yeah.

    GREGORY: ...what's the cautionary tale here? What do parents take away, in just a few seconds?

    Dr. SALTZ: If your child is extremely upset, it's OK to ask them if they're having thoughts about killing themselves. Parents are often afraid to do that. They don't want to bring it up, they don't want to think about it , and they think they might suggest something to a child that hasn't thought of -- that hadn't thought of it already. But that's really a myth.

    GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    Dr. SALTZ: And if your child expresses thoughts of hurting themselves, you need to get them, you know, immediate help, immediate evaluation because children, unlike adults...

    GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

    Dr. SALTZ: ...can look depressed one moment and happy and OK the next.

    Ms. CONNER: Mm-hmm.

    Dr. SALTZ: So it's hard to detect when they are actually depressed. And they can be impulsive and act on something too soon.

    GREGORY: Our deepest sympathies. We'll pray for you and we'll pray for Ashlynn . Thank you for being here. Thank you for talking about it. It can do a lot of good, I think, to parents listening to this. Thank you all very much.

TODAY contributor
updated 11/18/2011 10:22:50 AM ET 2011-11-18T15:22:50

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.

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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.”

Related: Teen contributor to ‘It Gets Better’ project found dead

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.

Video: Girl bullied by her own teachers

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.

Video: Was bullied 10-year-old driven to suicide? (on this page)

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.”

Here are resources for suicide prevention:

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