I'd been following the tragic story of the double suicide of Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz, two 14-year-old friends via the Marshall Independent, and thus was interested in Andy Birkey's fine story, Double suicide in western Minnesota puts bullying back in spotlight.
A couple of people leaving comments on the April 22 Minnesota Independent story suggest that the local paper isn't covering the story. "Dyna" posts that "The local press here in Marshall is not reporting this story at all" while "Bopper" writes "Nothing in SW Minnesota papers beyond a brief report that the suicides occured. This was the first real information I’ve seen." Both comments were left on April 22.
Bluestem readers know that I won't be shy in criticizing the Marshall paper if it were indeed ignoring this story. However, neither comment accurately reflects coverage of the story by the Marshall Independent, which first began reporting about the story on April 17 with Teens die in incident this weekend.
The first story was short, but the paper followed up with Willert addresses media on student deaths on April 20. From the second story:
Willert and Cindy Manthey of the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative's Critical Incident Stress Management team spoke to members of the media Monday, and answered questions about the incident. Willert said school administrators and staff have been in communication with the deceased students' families in order to respect their wishes and privacy.
"Based on information provided by the Lyon County Sheriff's Department, we have had two unexpected deaths of Marshall Middle School students," Willert said. Willert said Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz, both 14, died by suicide. . . .
"We need to model and talk with our children about how do we solve problems, how do we deal with things that are hard," she said. It is also helpful to teach monitor children and teen's use of cell phones and social media, and to teach them to be cautious about information they receive electronically. "Just because it's something was texted or someone put on Facebook, that doesn't mean it's fact." . . .
The article noted that there'd be a public meeting about the suicides and places for people to find more information.
On April 20, the Marshall Independent published an article about that gathering, Middle School meeting offers support for parents. The meeting mostly addressed how to deal with students' response to the deaths, but social media was brought up:
Cindy Manthey of CISM said parents should not overlook the role social media can play after the death of a student. Texting, Facebook and Twitter all make it easier for misinformation and rumors to get spread around. In working with Marshall students, she said, "We've been handling the rumors, we've been talking about the rumors."
Rumors are a concern because young people tend to be impressionable, Manthey said.
"They also don't have much of a filter as to what gets posted," she said. Supervising children, and shutting off cell phones or Facebook at night is good for everyone's well-being.
In the same issue, the paper editorialized that Kids need personal, not social, networks:
Marshall school officials, along with a crisis team from SW/WC Service Cooperative are doing a good thing by stepping up and reaching out to students and their parents and to the community as everyone copes with last weekend's incident outside of Marshall where two middle school students took their own lives.
As school officials and, in some cases, leaders within the community, this group expedited grief counseling Sunday and have continued it this week, held a news conference for members of local and statewide media to dispel rumors and organized an unprecedented event at the middle school Tuesday evening to give parents some kind of guidance as to how best to handle the situation within the walls of their own homes. . . .
All parents should be reminded to keep the lines of communication with their kids wide open, to listen to everything they have to say, and to encourage their kids to express their thoughts, feelings and emotions - not only about what happened last weekend, but about anything that's on their minds. Tuesday's meeting was designed to be a teaching tool for all parents that they can use now and in the future as their children grow up in a society full of pressures today's parents never experienced when they were 10, 11 or 12 years old.
If a child is looking for answers, we want them to turn to their immediate, personal networks - their parents or their school leaders - not to the social, online networks where the answers they're looking for cannot be found.
Saturday, April 23, Pers Peterson wrote about a profound quietness that gripped seventh and eighth graders in his Editor's column: A somber week at Marshall Middle School:
. . .On Monday, the first day of school after the incident, every advisory classroom at the middle school came with its own counselor, including fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms. Thomas said between 12 and 20 fifth- and sixth-graders have been seen by counselors throughout the week. Most of the counseling that has occurred with those kids, she said, has had a lot to do with previous life experiences they have had.
"This really resurrects so many emotions that kids and adults have stuffed away," Thomas said. "When something else tragic or critical occurs in our lives then all of it comes to the surface. Our team has really addressed a great deal of that as well as the tragedy that occurred last week.
Is the coverage muted? Yes, but it appears that much of the tone was set by the surviving immediate family members of the girls. What does emerge is a picture of a community and a paper that are not ignoring the deaths, but trying to address the immediate needs of middle school children.
Five news articles and op-ed pieces are not "nothing" or "ignoring" the story. Birkey's article keys on bullying related issues raised in an interview on the TODAY show with cousins and an uncle. It's worthy watching, as the grief-stricken relatives cautiously speculate about the deaths.
The deaths follow on the heels of the suicides of two teens in the New London Spicer area earlier in April. The community gathered for a discussion about suicide prevention. Groups like Minnesota Bully Busters are also organizing in West Central Minnesota communities and online.
Times Newsfeed shared a statement from Haylee's mother and older sister:
And in a written statement, Haylee's mother, Tracy Morrison, and her older sister, Ashley George, made it clear that they believe bullying played a critical role in the girls' deaths. “We need to stop pretending this isn't happening or that is just a cry for attention because obviously it is not,” they wrote. “This needs to be talked about and we need to try to prevent this by teaching kids in school, community and at home. They need to know they are not alone. It shouldn't take more tragedies to realize this.”
Photo: Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz