GATES — Makenna "Kenna" Dadey was, in the eyes of her friends Brooke Leary and Molly Westcott, a popular girl with an appealing sense of humor. What they remember best, they said, was her big heart.
"She never failed to help other people. She was very kind," Brooke said.
"She stuck up for other people even when it wasn’t the popular opinion," Molly added. "She loved everybody."
While recently on Christmas break, both were shocked to learn that their fellow eighth-grader at Gates Chili Middle School had attempted suicide Dec. 27. Kenna spent two weeks in the hospital but never recovered, passing away Jan. 10.
She was 13 years old — barely a teenager, the same age as Molly and Brooke.
"It was just hard to accept the fact that she had passed," Brooke said.
Kenna’s death, and the manner in which it occurred, prompted Maureen Piehler to arrange an informational night Jan. 23 at St. Theodore Church where she serves as faith-formation coordinator and youth minister. Piehler said her chief objective was "to support the teens and their parents," because she knew many were deeply upset by Kenna’s passing. She also wanted to provide tips to keep young folks safe.
Approximately 135 people — youths and adults from the wider community as well as St. Theodore — turned out for the presentation by Officer Robert Long of the Gates Police Department. He went into detail about suicide and how it often stems from cyberbullying, sexting and peer pressure.
"All these four elements, in some way, shape or form, can be related to each other," Long stated at the beginning of his talk.
On the one hand, he said, bullying — repeated actions designed to hurt and/or gain control over somebody — is nothing new among youths. However, Long noted that bullying is no longer limited to being physical or verbal in nature.
"With the invention of social media, it’s taking on a whole new face," he said.
He said cyberbullying is rapidly on the rise, thanks to young folks’ access to an ever-growing menu of electronic devices and networking sites coupled with the anonymity offered by online communication. Long, who also is a resource officer in the Gates Chili School District, said this type of bullying is hard for school officials to contain because it no longer occurs just at school.
"Cyberbullying is 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he remarked.
Long also addressed issues associated with sexting — sending someone sexually explicit photographs or messages via cell phones. He said young people often feel pressured by friends or strangers into transmitting such information.
And yet, Long went on to say, youths fail to grasp the far-reaching impact of a seemingly simple click of a button. For one thing, he said, severe legal consequences exist for sending inappropriate images of minors. And, when hurtful images or messages are launched into cyberspace, they’re there to stay with the potential to be shared limitlessly — even if the sender attempts to delete the information.
"Once it’s on the Internet it’s out there, never really gone," Long pointed out.
This reality could well result in devastating consequences for the victim. Long said that the anguish incurred from cyberbullying and sexting is potentially so profound that the thought — and even the act — of suicide might arise.
Another negative outgrowth of the Internet, he added, is the troubling trend of youths going online to publicize suicidal thoughts and behavior. Long offered up the disturbing example of 12-year-old Katelyn Nicole Davis of Georgia, who live-streamed herself committing suicide Dec. 30.
For people harboring suicidal thoughts, or who know of somebody fitting that description, Long said to contact a trusted adult at school, home, church or in the community. He also suggested dialing 211 to access a crisis and suicide intervention hotline. For those affected by any type of bullying, he recommended a federal government-sponsored website, stopbullying.gov.
Long implored parents to remain vigilant by closely monitoring their kids’ social media activity — even if it means reading their messages.
"Kids, it’s nothing personal," he told audience members, citing the overriding priority of warding off potentially harmful situations.
Molly and Brooke said they found the Jan. 23 presentation helpful, with Brooke saying she was reminded that "there are a lot of people who care for you, and you can always talk to them. I know it might not seem like the easiest thing to do, but it will help."
She and Molly said they’re glad they can discuss these difficult issues at St. Theodore, where both girls are faith-formation students and youth-group members. Piehler noted that both she and Father Steve Kraus, St. Theodore’s pastor, are open with parish youths about suicides that occurred in their own families — Piehler, with an older brother in 2004, and Father Kraus, with a younger sister in 1975.
Back at school, Molly and Brooke said, students have been kinder to each other since Kenna’s death, lending each other support in a social environment that can often be what Molly described as "harsh."
"It kind of makes you see the world in a different perspective," Molly said of her friend’s passing. "You hear that these things happen, but you think it will never happen to you."