September 24, 2011

Suicide victim may have been bullied

Wichita police are investigating whether a 14-year-old Wichita student who committed suicide this week was the target of bullying.

Wichita police are investigating whether a 14-year-old Wichita student who committed suicide this week was the target of bullying.

Rick Morawitz says his daughter, Rhianna, a freshman at Northeast Magnet High School, took her own life Tuesday at least in part because she was frustrated and depressed after being threatened and called names by other students.

"We never even thought in a million years this would happen. It was a complete shock," Morawitz said Friday. "We knew she was being bullied and that some crap was going on at school. . . . We tried to make the school aware of it. They knew what was going on, but they didn't do anything about it."

Wichita school officials said Friday that administrators at Northeast Magnet were "made aware of a conflict involving several students" last week.

"Administration investigated and spoke with both the students and the parents of the involved students to work through the issue," spokeswoman Susan Arensman said in a written statement.

Because of student privacy concerns, Arensman said, the district cannot say what specific action was taken.

Wichita police Lt. Doug Nolte said detectives are investigating allegations by friends and family members that Rhianna was bullied. Since the girl's death, rumors, speculation and messages about the need to stop bullying in schools have appeared on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Her "family is grieving, and the community should be grieving," Nolte said.

Friday evening, about a dozen Northeast High students gathered on a walkway over Kellogg and spelled out "R.I.P. Rhianna" and "Bullying kills" in plastic cups.

Austin O'Connor, 14, a close friend of Rhianna's, said she was upset last week about at least two students who had called her names and pushed her in the hallway. He and other students are planning a candlelight vigil tonight to remember Rhianna and to send a message to the community that bullying is a serious problem.

"It's happening, no question. It's just that some kids can handle it better than others," Austin said. "Rhianna was a really sweet person, and she took everything to heart. . . .

"She'd say, 'I'm fat' or things like that, and I'd tell her, 'No, you're not. You're beautiful,' " Austin said. "She cared a lot about what other people thought of her."

Last fall and again in February, the State Board of Education discussed whether schools are doing enough to combat bullying and whether there should be a stronger statewide anti-bullying policy. The issue was prompted in part by a string of suicides nationally among teens who had been bullied or harassed because peers believed they were gay.

A 2008 state law requires each of the state's 293 school districts to have anti-bullying policies in place, but it does not require districts to keep statistics on bullying incidents.

Next week, the Wichita school board is expected to proclaim the first week of October as "Anti-Bullying Awareness Week," following a recommendation by the state board.

In their written statement Friday, Wichita school leaders said the district "takes matters of bullying seriously and we want all of our students to feel safe at school and to know they can talk with staff members if they feel they are being harassed or bullied."

"Lessons on bullying are provided yearly throughout the school year," the statement said. "Students themselves are also involved in teaching their peers about the dangers of bullying."

Rick Morawitz said his daughter had issues with bullies in the past, "mostly mean girls saying stuff, calling her names" at middle schools in Haysville and Wichita.

"I don't know if we dressed her too nice or what. She's our only child, so we spoiled her, I guess," he said. "There always seemed to be some girls that were jealous of her."

When they raised the issue with administrators, "they'd say they were going to look into it, but nothing ever happened," Morawitz said.

He said he and his wife, Lisa, decided to send Rhianna to Northeast Magnet because it is smaller than most other Wichita high schools, and they thought it would provide a more family-like atmosphere.

"Back when we toured the school, we heard them talk about how they had zero tolerance for bullying, and we thought yeah, this is the place," he said. "You want your child to feel safe."

On Friday, as he greeted mourners at an east Wichita funeral home, Rick Morawitz said he had been contacted by students, parents and others who told him bullying is a serious problem in schools and schools don't do enough when there is a complaint.

"Until something like this happens," he said.

"My daughter's gone, and there's nothing that's ever going to bring her back," he said. "What concerns me now is I know there's so many other kids out there going through the same (things) she did. It just seems like it's all over this town, and the schools kind of, you know, act like nothing's going on."

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