TODAY | November 18, 2011
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.
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.
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...
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.
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...
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...
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.
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.
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...
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.