Op-ed column: Teen tragedy not that simple
People manipulate story of girls’ suicides for their own agendas
I’m sick of people rewriting the story of the four teenage girls who committed suicide in Schenectady three years ago.
It was a terrifying suicide cluster, in which one girl after another attempted suicide over the course of five months. Several girls were resuscitated, but four died.
Their memory has been invoked to support programs that are wholly unrelated to what happened in their lives, and I can’t stand it anymore.
At Wednesday’s public hearing on a proposed charter school in Schenectady, I was offended to hear — yet again — their stories changed for the purposes of another project.
Clearing the air
This time, the speaker said the girls who died are proof that the city needs a charter school. Why? Because they were all poor, black, Hamilton Hill kids who felt hopeless.
First of all, they were all teenagers — the charter school is for elementary school students. But leaving that aside for a moment, let’s get a few things straight here.
They were not all black. They were not all poor. Only one of them lived on Hamilton Hill.
They weren’t all “bad” at school (and they didn’t all go to the same school, though they were friends). They all had loving families.
The parents of the last two girls to die did not willfully ignore the problem. One of them reached out to the parent of one of the boys who was harassing the girls, and tried to mediate a solution. Another parent brought her daughter to emergency counseling.
The frightening thing about the situation was that it didn’t work. Nothing worked. For a time, it seemed like children would keep dying, and nothing would stop it.
Since their deaths, these girls have been invoked as a reason for everything from suicide awareness groups (which at least makes sense) to gun buyback programs (although there’s no evidence at all that they were ever threatened with guns).
Harassed and beaten
The truth is that they were harassed, and in some cases beaten horribly, by other teenagers who later were convicted of trafficking cocaine. Did the girls know about the cocaine? Is that why they were attacked? We’ll probably never know.
But many girls were harassed by those drug dealers. Some killed themselves. Others didn’t.
Suicide is a complex decision that is not rationally based on one or two specific events. It’s based on a conglomeration of incidents that overwhelm the person until he or she feels like suicide is the best way out.
Not one of those girls committed suicide solely because of the harassment. And just to make it clear, regarding the charter school — not one of them killed themselves because they decided one day that their public school education would not fulfill their goals for the future.
Suicide is not that simple.
But we don’t like to think that. We like to put scary things in little boxes, where we feel we can control them and make sure they never happen again. We like to believe that if we do one thing — better street lights, or a charter school — then none of our children will ever feel so depressed that they kill themselves.
We like to believe that we can control this, that we can figure out the absolutely perfect way to do things, and then our children will all be safe.
Beyond our control
When I wrote about those children, and they kept on dying, I learned that there are things that are out of our control. I had expected to find that the parents were uninvolved, or perhaps abusive, terrible people. But you know what? They cared deeply. They tried as hard as they could to keep their children alive.
There were dozens of parents in this city who were afraid to let their daughters close their bedroom doors, for months, because they were so scared the child might kill herself if she was given the chance.
It was THAT scary. It was THAT out of our control.
We didn’t know who might go next. We didn’t know why one girl died and another one didn’t.
And we still don’t.
So please, if you must invoke their memory, invoke that memory: the memory of our hopelessness and fear. Don’t lie about who they were to create a simple problem that we can fix.
Kathleen Moore is a Gazette reporter. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.