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Pinellas mother says cyberbullying played a part in daughter's death

McKenna dies of suicide LEONARD'S PHOTOGRAPHY.png
Posted at 5:52 AM, Nov 15, 2022

Teen suicides are on the rise, and recent statistics are alarming.

According to Pew Research, since 2008, child suicide rates have increased by up to 150%. In a 2018 study, there was a 33% increase in depression and anxiety, and 59% of teens experienced cyberbullying or online harassment, with research pointing to social media use.

Local mom Cheryl Brown lost her daughter, McKenna, to suicide, and she believes online bullying played a big part.

"She had a way of lighting up the room. She was a friend to everybody. She was incredibly outgoing, huge heart, very compassionate, funny. She could make you laugh and not even try,'' explained Brown.

Cheryl said Mckenna was an adorable little girl who grew into a beautiful teen. She was excelling academically, becoming a star goalie on a traveling hockey team, had a promising future to play in college and so much more.

But Cheryl knew something was wrong when that positive disposition abruptly changed during her freshman year — this after a compromising photo of McKenna began to circulate.

"It was devastating. It was humiliating. It was mortifying," Cheryl said.

And Cheryl said the photo was also shared on social media and seen by classmates at East Lake High School, destroying McKenna's mental well-being.

''She struggled and carried that with her for a couple of months. And did try and make an attempt at taking her life at that point, but was unsuccessful,'' Cheryl explained.

Cheryl said she reported the incident to school officials.

"We were very forthcoming about the gravity of what happened. We thought it was important that they knew exactly what happened and not sugarcoat it. We didn't want this happening to anybody else. And we wanted to keep McKenna safe. And we wanted her to have the support that she needed to continue to get better. And get through this and pass this," Cheryl said.

But Cheryl said school officials did nothing. And despite mental health counseling, McKenna struggled as the bullying continued. Cheryl said she feels the school failed her.

"There was no support there," she added.

"Keep in mind, the district is not a mental health provider agency. It's a school district," explained Pinellas County School District's Public Information Officer Isabel Mascareñas.

Mascareñas explained to ABC Action News anchor Wendy Ryan that she could not speak about McKenna's incident or any other student. But she claimed the district does follow anti-bullying guidelines.

"If there is a bullying situation to report it to a trusted adult at school that there is a problem. And they can, of course, you know, address it. The principal would address it. Staff can address it and determine what to do from there," Mascareñas said.

But Cheryl said she did report the bullying to the school right after it happened.

And her husband, Hunter, even sent an email to school officials, asking for more to be done about the bullying, four months after the incident.

The email said in part, "McKenna has now become the only one involved in this matter to be punished or suffer any consequences. Some students have taken this as a sign their actions were acceptable and that they did nothing wrong. Some of them have begun to direct comments and take action towards her."

But still, Cheryl said no action was taken.

"They should have done something to help protect McKenna. And they didn't. They could have done more. They should have done more," she repeated.

When the pandemic hit and students were sent home to learn virtually, McKenna began rebuilding her self-esteem, training hard at the gym and playing hockey. And it all helped boost her confidence during those two years.

But just before her senior year began, McKenna worried about a secret even her own mom didn't know until two days before she took her life.

"She shared with me in confidence that she was statutorily raped," Cheryl said.

Cheryl said McKenna feared that secret was about to be shared with classmates. And on top of the trauma from the rape, Cheryl revealed the cyberbullying had escalated again.

"A five-day assault on her through social media and texts, Instagram. Essentially they wanted to cancel her. It broke her," Cheryl explained.

And that night, just before school started, McKenna died by suicide.

"I miss her. I love her," Cheryl said, with tears in her eyes.

ABC Action News spoke with Dave Fisher at USA Hockey and he confirmed the organization has opened an investigation into the alleged cyberbullying.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255 or just dial 988.

You can also go to 988lifeline.org.