(ABC4) – For many Utahns, news of 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor’s death has been met with a combination of sadness, anger, and outrage.
Izzy, the little girl seen in photographs with a bright smile and hair pulled back in a ponytail, usually complemented by a bow, committed suicide last weekend. According to her mother, Brittany, Izzy was frequently a target of bullying by her peers at Foxboro Elementary in North Salt Lake due to the color of her skin and her learning disabilities.
Izzy’s death came as a shock to her mother, who knew her child had been bullied but didn’t realize the extent of the harm being done.
“You wouldn’t even know she was going through it. Obviously, I missed it, somehow. She was happy. She was smiling. She would always say, ‘You’re the best mommy in the whole wide world,’ she said while speaking to ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen on Tuesday. “So that was the hardest part. She must have really internalized this.”
Utah Governor Spencer Cox tweeted his emotions on Tuesday as well, saying “My heart is broken for Izzy and her family. We must – and will – do more.”
Izzy’s story also reached one of the state’s most visible athletes, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who described his outrage while referring to the U.S. Department of Justice’s findings that the Davis School District had failed to respond to hundreds of reports of racially-based bullying over a course of five years.
“I am at a loss for words rn… this is honestly sick!” Mitchell tweeted. “A little girl committing suicide because she was bullied based on the color of her skin… it’s sickening that grown adults knew about this and didn’t give a damn! Rest in Paradise Izzy! WE will be your voice.”
For folks who have been working to advocate anti-bullying messages in schools and homes, Izzy’s death represents a worst-case scenario.
“You don’t want to see that,” Pam Hayes, who works as the Programs Director for Utah’s Anti-Bullying Coalition, tells ABC4.com. “She’s so young…We need to step up and start teaching kids that their actions matter, their words hurt, and kindness is the way to go.”
The Anti-Bullying Coalition frequently sends speakers and representatives to schools throughout the state to educate students on the risks of bullying, the damage that can be inflicted, and ways to prevent or report bullying. The group works not only with children on the receiving end of bullying but also with children who are acting as the bully to get to the root of the problem.
One of the most important lessons the Coalition teaches is how to build understanding and empathy for others. Many times, children in school like to laugh with and tease each other, which to some degree can be OK, but knowing where the limits are is key.
“We look at the students and we say, ‘Hey, you don’t know what somebody is going through, so we need to choose our words carefully,’” Hayes explains. “And make sure that if you’re teasing that you’re talking to them and you’re making sure that this is okay.”
Victims of bullying can at times feel afraid or unsure of how to report a problem, but Hayes says efforts are being made to make speaking out as comforting and simple as possible. While counselors and teachers are traditional resources for students, the SafeUT app, which allows students to provide confidential tips and receive real-time aid at no cost, is a must for any student with a smartphone.
Unfortunately, however, smartphones can be a big and many times, more challenging part of the bullying problem. Hayes cites a recent study done at Brigham Young University that found that online harassment and cyberbullying were the biggest predictors of adolescent suicidal thoughts and behavior.
It makes sense, considering how much technology has become a part of a young person’s daily life, especially as they enter their teenage years.
“In elementary school, you see more name-calling directly to their face,” Hayes states. “The kids in secondary schools are doing more cyberbullying.”
One of the biggest ‘whys’ driving the rise of cyberbullying – which according to Hayes, has risen 600% over the last year and change – was clearly due to the pandemic which forced children to make online and social media relationships their primary form of connection for a time. It didn’t help seeing how adults behave online either, she says.
“They see that adults are bullying and acting out and they feel like they have the power to do it as well,” Hayes explains. “So it was an interesting thing where our adult behavior is modeling down to our students.”
In addition to being more aware of how their own behavior affects how children treat each other, Hayes suggests parents take an active role in monitoring their child’s interactions with their peers, especially online where the bullying is not easily seen. She recommends parents download monitoring apps to their own phones and teach their children to screenshot and report any instance of harmful communication. It’s important children feel comfortable and safe reporting any bullying that they witness or experience themselves.
Above all, Hayes and her group state kindness and understanding need to be reinforced in the messaging given to children. This is especially vital when youngsters interact with someone who may be different from them, in terms of having a learning disability or other point of difference.
“Everybody has power, and we can learn from everybody,” Hayes says of her message to students who have classmates with differing abilities and looks. “In our ambassador clubs, we try to bring kids that may be a little challenged, and so they can learn from them, and they can learn from other students as well, and start building relationships. Inclusion needs to be number one in all schools.”
If you are contemplating suicide, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.