Nobody wanted Izzy Tichenor to die by suicide.
But, reading the report on the death of the 10-year-old Davis County student, which was commissioned by the Davis School District, it is heartbreaking to see all the points along the way where others unknowingly, uncaringly, contributed to that outcome.
This is not just a failing that can be laid at the feet of the school or the district. This is a problem that calls for action from all of us, to understand the deep harm that can be done, often thoughtlessly, by actions and comments that can cause trauma and permanent emotional damage, including suicide.
The kind of mental health services and anti-bullying training that has been recommended for the Davis School District should be universal, in schools, universities, workplaces and families. It is not just one school district that needs to meet this challenge.
As much as anything, people need to talk about suicide and its causes, not just after it happens, but before. Making it a subject that is too painful to be talked about just increases the likelihood that it will happen again.
There are resources available.
The most easily accessible for most Utahns may be the state’s SafeUT app. It offers a 24/7 connection to trained counselors who can respond to text messages or phone calls from young people who may be contemplating suicide or worried about someone else who might be, as well as reports of bullying.
But the tragedy of Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, who died last November, points out other resources that should have been made available by her school, even if she and her family didn’t know what or who to ask, were missing.
Izzy’s family had complained to Foxboro Elementary teachers and administrators that the girl had been insulted, teased and threatened by teachers and fellow students and that the school’s adults and its system that should have protected the young girl from such behavior did very little to respond.
Only after Izzy had died, the report said, did Foxboro staff properly document some of the family’s complaints. And the three outside experts called in to look into what happened and how it could be prevented from happening again were troubled to hear educators seemed to feel each of the separate incidents was no big deal. That students should have thicker skin. That children with the kind of learning disability Izzy struggled with don’t even know when they are being insulted or bullied.
This report followed a similarly damning one from the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that Davis School District officials had long ignored “serious and widespread” racial harassment against Black and Asian students throughout the district.
Members of the panel who looked into Izzy’s death said they could not say for sure whether the bullying and insults directed at the girl and her sister were motivated by racism or by the fact that Izzy was autistic. But they were troubled by the fact that the district didn’t seem to know the answer to those questions, either, and that school staff they interviewed didn’t seem to grasp the harm that can be done by bullying young children and by the perception that adults won’t do anything to stop it.
The panel also pointed out that Izzy’s family had been homeless for a time, a situation that only made the girl more emotionally vulnerable and may have led both students and teachers to complain that the girl smelled bad because she couldn’t bathe regularly. Issues of hygiene and appearance can be tied up in perceptions of racial prejudice, multiplying the potential harm.
But prejudice, based on race or sexual orientation, and poverty are not the only causes of emotional pain and suicide, not the only targets of bullying. Those problems attack all ethnic groups, all socioeconomic classes. People who seem to have bravely stood up to woes of all kinds and people who, from the outside, seem not to have a care in the world.
Social media and the internet are conduits of bullying and pain that can strike anyone, anywhere. Though they can also be a resource, such at the SafeUT app and such contacts as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and its 24-hour support line, 1-800-273-8255.
To face this problem, people in need must feel they can ask for help. Those in power must be fully prepared to give it. And, when it comes to reaching out and preventing suicide, all of us are in power.