“You’re supposed to be my mom. You’re supposed to be on my side,” were the last words Tina Meier heard her daughter say before 13-year-old Megan Meier hung herself with a belt in her closet.
Meier shared her family’s story during an assembly at Hellgate High School Monday that kicked off Diversity Week events at Hellgate and Big Sky high schools.
The week is organized by Respect Club students through the Flagship Program, and during it students are encouraged to attend different events that inspire respect for others.
Megan’s words the night she hung herself came in response to her mom’s reaction to her interactions with a boy on MySpace, Meier told students.
Megan had been plagued by bullies and harassed since kindergarten. In third grade, she told her mom she wanted to kill herself.
“I panicked. I didn’t handle it the right way because I was surprised,” Meier said.
Doctors diagnosed Megan with attention deficit disorder and depression.
The bullying continued and Megan quit eating lunch because other students called her names like elephant in reference to her weight. She stopped dressing out for gym class because boys called her "thunder thighs."
Meier told her to ignore the other students.
“Mom, seriously, could you ignore them if it was you?” Meier remembers Megan asking.
“It’s hard because at the end of the day, all you want to do is fit in as who you are,” Meier said.
Before her eighth-grade year, Megan switched schools and seemed to be on an upswing.
She lost weight, joined the volleyball team and was making new friends.
Initially Meier said no to her daughter’s request for a MySpace account, but relented with the condition that she have the account password and several other stipulations.
Through her account, Megan began corresponding with a boy named Josh Evans.
The boy, though, was the fabrication of a neighbor who wanted to know what Megan was saying about her own daughter.
Suddenly, the “boy” told Megan he didn’t want to talk to her anymore and others joined in saying derogatory things about her, sparking a downward spiral for Megan and the confrontation with her parents about MySpace the night she committed suicide.
Today, Megan would be 22 years old. She never had a first date, never got her braces removed or learned to drive.
The neighbor admitted to creating the MySpace account, but no laws were in place that allowed for her to be criminally charged in Missouri, where the families lived.
Laws eliminate confusion about what bullying is and provide guidelines for schools to enforce anti-bullying policies. However, laws are not the ultimate solution, Meier said.
“The fixing it is awareness and education and it’s empowering the students to make a change,” she said.
Today, laws are in place in 49 states. Montana remains the last state without an anti-bullying law, something Missoula Rep. Kimberly Dudik proposes to change this legislative session with the Bully Free Montana Act.
Already, administrative rules are in place through the state’s Office of Public Instruction that require schools to have anti-bullying policies in place or risk a hit to their accreditation status.
The bill includes cyber-bullying and would give schools legal standing to enforce anti-bullying policies and give families more options for recourse.
Bullying has long-term repercussions for the bullied and the bully, Dudik said, adding Montana has the highest rate of teen suicide in the country.
A law won’t necessarily end bullying, but it will help create a culture of intolerance and send the message that actions have consequences, she said.
“We really have the chance to help everyone, not only the child being bullied but also the bully, so we can get them on the right path for the future,” Dudik said.
“I think it’s becoming more frequent – the electronic bullying,” said Jim Johnson, who has been Hellgate High School’s school resource officer for nine years.
Often kids fail to realize that their actions can be punishable under the law, and tend to stop their behavior when they realize they could be charged with a crime, Johnson said.
Still, he deals with bullying several times a week, he said.
That bullying is present was apparent by the number of students and teachers thanking Meier for her presentation Monday and sharing their own experiences.
Junior Marius Reschke organized Meier’s daylong visit to the school and raised money and received grants to make her trip possible.
“I’ve been bullied a lot, especially in middle school, and I’ve also been the bully,” he said. “And it just doesn’t feel good.”
Reschke declined to share examples, saying it’s too painful.
“It feels like my inside has been broken so many times, it just makes me feel worse about what happened,” he said, adding he hopes Meier’s presentation helps students make good decisions.
Missoula County Public Schools has a policy against bullying, harassment and threats and those behaviors can be punishable with suspension or expulsion, said Hatton Littman, the district’s director of technology and communications.
Bullying has a negative impact on students and a school’s environment and studies show it can decrease student achievement, she said.
A mental health task force also was formed in the district after the Sandy Hook school shootings. That group recommended implementing the Montana Behavioral Initiative at all schools, which has happened, Littman said.
Other attempts at curbing cyber-bullying include blocking certain sites and apps that can foster bullying, such as Yik Yak and Act.fm, from use on district technology devices.
Yik Yak allows people to anonymously comment on streams. School districts can block use of the app on both personal and district devices on school properties – something that MCPS has opted to do.
Additionally, the district is reviewing its technology plan, Littman said.
Already the plan provides curriculum for elementary students to receive digital citizenship, such as how to interact in online spaces, she said.
People make mistakes, but prolonged and targeted harassment should not be tolerated in any segment of society, whether that be schools or workplaces, Meier said.
Technology emboldens people to say things they might not say to someone face to face, she said.
If you pass along a text message or a Facebook post that harasses another person, you are part of the bullying. Words may seem harmless, but they can have devastating impacts, especially when people already are dealing with other life issues, she said.
“It can destroy people,” she added.
Peers standing up against bullies is key to helping stop bullies, Meier said.
“Stop it. Stand up. Say something,” she encouraged students.
A tool kit from OPI is available online at opi.mt.gov/pdf/Bullying/14BullyFreeToolkit.pdf.