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Bullied Girl's Suicide Shows Social Media 'Dangers,' Need to Empower Kids

By  Benjamin Woodard and Adeshina Emmanuel | June 10, 2014 5:08am 

 School leaders met Monday night at the Peirce Elementary School Local School Council meeting.
Peirce Elementary School LSC
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ANDERSONVILLE — The mother of the 12-year-old who killed herself after she was allegedly bullied at Peirce Elementary School wept outside a school classroom Monday evening as school leaders discussed the implications of the tragedy.

Beth Martin, an artist who said she had come to the Local School Council meeting from work, was dressed in black and leaned in the doorway of the room for most of the public meeting. At the end, she wept while talking to members of the LSC.

Her daughter, Mckenzie Phlipot, hanged herself a month and one day before. The death was ruled a suicide.

Since then, Chicago Public Schools has launched an investigation into the school as community members and elected officials called for something to be done.

 Mckenzie Phlipot, 12, took her own life on May 8.
Mckenzie Phlipot, 12, took her own life on May 8.
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Family Photo

Martin and her daughter's father, Travis Phlipot, have declined to comment about the tragedy. But they distributed a letter to parents last week, accusing the school of ignoring the family's "cries for help" about the bullying of their daughter. They also alleged a teacher had contributed to the bullying.

CPS officials have declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

Members of the LSC discussed the tragedy and the school's response at the meeting Monday night at the school at 1423 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.

"I don’t sleep well at night because of this, and I think that I want to desperately find a way to make sure that we empower our children to stop things when they’re happening," Sandra Leander, a Peirce teacher and LSC member, said of the bullying. "That’s one of the hardest things to do, not be a bystander. We've spent a lot of time talking about what we should have done. I think what we should focus on is what we can do."

Leander and other LSC members discussed what could be done at the school to help both children and parents understand the ill effects of bullying.

"When you see injustice happening you have to speak out about it," she said. "I think it really comes down to the fact that we have to empower these children. We need to be examples for them."

Peirce Principal Nancy Mendez announced that CPS would conduct a "social-emotional climate review" of the school, which would include a survey and audit of the school's morale.

The school will also host a workshop for parents about "the dangers of social media" and how to monitor their children's accounts, she said. The school last week held suicide prevention workshops.

Mckenzie Phlipot made several Instagram posts referencing bullying and suicide, just four days before her death.

"If things are not going right, we want our parents to notify us immediately so we can rectify it," Mendez said.

She also said the school would be "helping children to identify when they're not feeling right."

Brooke Thompson, a LSC member and teacher, said the recent media coverage of Phlipot's death and bullying at the school "made my blood boil."

"The media are always going to paint the bleakest, darkest picture they can get away with," she said. "Bullying is an issue countrywide, worldwide. It’s a problem. We know that this is a problem."

Thompson said the news reports didn't tell a complete picture of life at Peirce.

"One of [Mckenzie Phlipot's] basketball coaches came up every single morning to check to make sure she had her homework done so she could play and be a part of the team," she said. "It is a tragedy, and it's horrible that it happened, but there are very positive things that do happen" here.

She urged the LSC and people of the community to not allow the event to "define us."

"It's not an excuse," she said, "but there are great things that are happening, and I think we need to have a balanced story out there."

Joe Dunne, vice president of the fundraising group Friends of Peirce, said the more parents became involved at the school, the more successful the school would become at stopping bullying.

"We need to make sure that incidents like this don't continue," he said. "I don't know the details of what happened, but whatever happened was clearly tragic. And we need to make sure resources are available to the administration to give them the tools to make sure that these kinds of things can be prevented."

LSC Chairwoman Maria Rodriguez said parents in the community "want to know that their children are safe."

She said school administration told the LSC "all proper protocols and procedures have been followed."

But she said, "Parents want to know more about what happened, and they want to be reassured that it doesn't happen again."

The flyer distributed by Mckenzie's parents said the girl had even ended up in the emergency room after the bullying. A police official with the Foster District, though, said there weren't any reports filed regarding Mckenzie's run-ins with bullies.

Mckenzie's friends said bullying was commonplace at the school.

One said she started a Facebook page to honor "the golden girl" and "to prevent bullying."  She said she first noticed her being bullied in the fifth grade, and that "the bullying was awful."

A sixth-grade girl at Peirce who was close to Mckenzie said in a Facebook message that Mckenzie was "a loyal friend" who "was shoved, punched and left with a black eye" after run-ins with bullies.

Another friend said "Mckenzie was athletic, funny and amazing to be with," but had a sadder side she was unsure that other students understood. She cited "sad quotes and images" on Mckenzie's Instagram page.

"There were two or three main people that bullied her on and off," the friend said. "While other people just talked behind her back and teased her and called her names."

In one incident, the friend said, Mckenzie got in a fight with a bully "a week before" she died.

"She never talked to me about taking her own life," the girl said, but other friends were worried "that she might do it."

The student remembers her friend being "called out" by multiple teachers related to missing school work. But the girl said there was a math teacher who told the class "we had to support Mckenzie in any possible way."

Another friend also mentioned teachers who went out of their way to be kind to the girl, including one woman who called Mckenzie "her princess," according to a classmate.

At some point earlier this spring, Mckenzie's homeroom was changed. Some friends said it was because of bully-related issues.

One friend said she was with her the day she killed herself. They were together after school until about 4 p.m.

"She acted so happy that day," the friend said.

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