Editor's note: This story deals with the harmful effects of bullying and the pain of suicide. It contains harsh language and may not be suitable for all readers.
MOAB — In January, Lily Clara McClish, 13, was named Student of the Month at Grand County Middle School for her efforts to promote tolerance for students of all sexual orientations, races and genders.
That same month, on Jan. 26, Lily took her own life.
Her mother, Molly McClish, said her daughter was depressed, in part because of what she saw as injustices happening at her school, including bullying of her friends that she felt was being ignored by some adults at the school.
What McClish didn’t know at that time was that Lily herself was being subjected to more bullying than she was letting on.
Although she knew there had been mean comments made in the past, it wasn’t until nearly four months after Lily’s death that the woman started to discover to what degree her daughter was the target of extremely mean and harmful comments.
The Grand County Sheriff’s Office is now investigating how deep the bullying went and whether that alleged abuse by some of her peers pushed her into taking her own life. A pair of search warrant affidavits filed in 7th District Court show that deputies are treating the case as a manslaughter investigation.
“This bullying took place not only in person but also online via text messaging, Facebook posts and Messenger, as well as other third-party applications. Lily was told, in front of witnesses, on multiple occasions that she should, ‘Go kill yourself white trash,’ ‘Kill yourself,’ and ‘Just die,’” according to the warrants.
The investigation is focused primarily on three juvenile boys who attended Lily’s school.
“Because of the severe emotional distress suffered by Lily at the hands of the three individuals, she committed suicide,” the affidavits state.
The sheriff’s office would only confirm to the Deseret News that the investigation is still active, but would not make any other comments on the case.
Whether manslaughter charges are actually filed against any of the juveniles or whether such charges would be appropriate are decisions McClish says she will leave for others to make. What she is interested in is restorative justice and changes being made in the schools about how bullying is reported and documented.
Restorative justice is a program that puts an emphasis not just on accountability, but also making sure that everyone involved in such incidents — including the offenders — get help.
“Restorative justice means they have to work with a therapist until they can really be accountable for how their actions impacted a situation,” she said.
McClish was a teacher at Grand High School last school year. She took a month off after her daughter's death and then finished out the school year. This year, she isn’t teaching so she can focus on raising awareness about the importance of reporting bullying, especially at school.
She is currently working with the Grand County School District to raise awareness about bullying as it develops a curriculum to curtail bullying.
It's not just important for students to speak out and say something, but teachers and school administrators must report bullying as well, she said.
Snitches get stitches
“I have spent almost all of my time since (Lily's death) trying to wrap my head around what happened,” McClish said.
Lily was a bright, vibrant, joyful child, her mother said. But like any teenager, she could be difficult. And McClish knew her daughter was struggling early in the school year. The year before, her daughter had announced that she was a lesbian. During the first week of the new school year, Lily told her mother she had cut herself.
“Lily had definitely become depressed. Black was her favorite color,” her mother said.
McClish got Lily connected with a school-based therapist. She discussed long- and short-term goals with the girl. And she thought things were improving.
“We felt safe that she was going to be OK, that she was going to make it through, because she seemed like she was making steps to be less of this acute risk,” the mother said.
But Lily continued to be discouraged by seeing her friends discriminated against for their sexual orientation or race. Sometimes, she felt the bullying would happen in front of teachers, but McClish claims they wouldn’t stop it.
“It really weighed on her,” McClish said. “She did not feel like she could talk about that. She felt afraid. She didn’t feel safe to report what she was seeing. And it wasn’t until after her death, and months after her death, that I found out what she had experienced.
“They told me that the day she killed herself — and nobody reported it that day it happened, everybody reported it the next day when they announced her death — that the heckling escalated a little bit, and it turned into, ‘Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Do it. Do it tonight. You’re going to do it anyway. You’re a monster. You should do it. You should hang yourself. You should shoot yourself. Do it tonight,’ over and over,” McClish said.
What she also didn’t find out until 3 ½ months after her daughter’s death was that the bullying didn’t stop after Lily came home from school in the afternoons, but would continue at all hours via text messages and social media. McClish said she wasn’t even aware that her daughter had her own Facebook page.
“Lily had set up her own Apple ID using gift cards,” she said. “(Children are) not dumb. She wanted to have her own private account that she could be in control of. So she set up a separate account saying she was older.”
But Lily would never let on how much she was struggling, or who was bullying her and her friends.
“Lily would say over and over, ‘Snitches get stitches,’ when I would encourage her to talk about what she was observing,” her mother said.
Two of the three boys under investigation immediately felt remorse when Lily died, police wrote in the warrants. But investigators noted it was unclear if the third boy felt the same way. Deputies said the third boy also has two other active investigations involving “coercing female children to send him nude photographs” on Snapchat.
Schools report bullying
Bullying isn't unique to Grand County. An affidavit unsealed in 8th District Court in July revealed that the Duchesne County Sheriff's Office was investigating the case of a high school sophomore who was hospitalized.
"She talks about being called names like 'slut and whore' and feels like no one cares about her and that was why she attempted to hurt herself," the warrant states.
The investigation also included a teen who allegedly badgered the girl into sending him nude pictures.
"This is the second case I have had with (the boy) as the suspect of asking for child pornography and sending harmful images to a juvenile even after being talked to and being charged previously with the same charges," according to the warrant.
The investigation was eventually closed and no charges filed "because a search of the teen’s phone did not turn up any photos, most likely due to the app that was used to take and send the images," according to the sheriff's office.
In St. George, a search warrant filed in July says that police were investigating harassing messages sent to a 13-year-old girl through Instagram.
"Some of the messages stated 'Nobody likes you,' 'If you died i would LAUGH,' 'Aww ru gonna cryyyyy? Go ahead nobody cares Ha!', 'I hope you slit ur wrists and die,' 'If you died it would be a holiday,' and 'I hope u dieee,' according to the warrant, which also noted there were many more messages.
An average of 557 Utahns die each year from suicide, according to the Utah Department of Health. Youth ages 10 to 17 account for 5.1 percent of all suicides in Utah, and 22.7 percent of all suicide attempts. On average, two juveniles are treated for suicide attempts every day in Utah, according to the department.
When it comes to bullying at school, juveniles who were bullied "more than once during the past year were 4.2 times more likely to have seriously considered suicide," and "among those who had been bullied at least once both at school and electronically, the likelihood was 5.8 times higher," according to a Utah Department of Health report in 2015.
Nationally, in 2015, 42.8 percent of gay students "seriously considered attempting suicide" while 34 percent of LGBTQ students "reported being bullied at school," the health department reported. It plans to start including data for local LGBTQ youth suicides in its next yearly report.
McClish believes the Utah Legislature took big steps earlier this year to address the issue of bullying in schools and accountability.
State law requires school districts and charter schools to implement bullying, cyberbullying, hazing and harassment policies. It further requires "regular and meaningful training" of school employees and students.
But in February, Angela Stallings, deputy state superintendent, said about 30 percent of Utah school districts and charter schools do not have policies on bullying and hazing.
In March, Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law SB161, which amended the state’s bullying and hazing laws. Specifically, the law requires school boards to update their policies regarding bullying, cyberbullying, hazing and retaliation by Sept. 1, 2018. It also requires employees, students and parents to acknowledge in writing they are aware of a district’s bullying policy; and calls on the State School Board to come up with a standard set of rules for bullying training and that all school employees receive that training.
“I want changes made. A lack of things being in place failed her. The school needed more policies,” McClish said.
“If we observe something, it is our responsibility to make sure somebody knows about it, because you don’t know how much of a difference that will make for somebody. Lily wasn’t wearing her emotions on her sleeve. She acted tough and had some guard up when kids would say, ‘Why are you cutting?’ She’d just give a smart-aleck comment about it. She wasn’t going to be vulnerable for them.”
McClish also wants to see changes in how bullying is reported in schools and where those reports go after a complaint is made.
“For kids who are acting out in this fashion, you have to have it recorded so you know if this is a repeated pattern, especially in that developmental time. And that therapy needs to be available for the bully and the victim and the witness because it’s a mental health issue,” she said. “Violence like this is a mental health issue.”
For too long, she said, school administrators have been making judgment calls on whether to report a bullying incident. McClish wants reporting of all incidents to be mandatory. She believes if some of these policies had been in place in January, her daughter would be here today.
There were no incidents of bullying reported in any of the elementary, middle schools or high schools in Grand County during the 2015-16 school year, according to statistics collected by the Utah State Board of Education and posted on its website. McClish said according to statistics she has seen, Grand County has not reported a single incident of bullying to the state since 2013.
“That number should be significantly higher,” she said.
McClish also believes there should be stiffer penalties for harsh language in school.
“Language needs to be considered the same as bringing a knife to school,” she said, adding that language can be just as dangerous to a teenager who is already “on the edge."
McClish believes it should be mandatory to have certified mental health therapists at each school so when a student has a problem, they can talk to someone more than a “guidance counselor,” or as she puts it, someone who is able to conduct a suicide-risk assessment rather than just asking a student, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’
JT Stroder became the new superintendent for the Grand County School District this school year. Although he has only been on the job for two months, bullying has already become a priority, he said.
On the school district's website, a post about bullying and a survey is the first item on the home page. In conjunction with McClish, the district recently wrapped up a survey of students about what they're seeing regarding bullying in the schools. Stroder said the survey was "mandatory" for students in grades four through 12, and about 805 students participated.
The survey found that students report bullying only about half, or less than half, of the time they observe it. It also found that students are most likely to report incidents of bullying to their teachers, more than to parents or school administrators.
Stroder said the survey will be used to guide the district in future professional development and to educate students and parents about the importance of reporting bullying.
The district is also getting ready to run a "culture survey" at each school to find out what issues parents are concerned about.
Since Lily's death, the Grand County School District has been reviewing all of its policies regarding bullying, Stroder said. At last week's Grand School Board meeting, five new safe schools policies — including policies on bullying — were approved. The policies will now be posted on the district's website for the public to review for a month. At the next school board meeting in October, the policies will then officially be ratified.
Stroder said Grand County has come up with a new curriculum regarding bullying a full year ahead of the state's deadline. It will ensure that every school in the district covering students from kindergarten to 12th grade knows what the expectations are regarding bullying and that each school handles bullying incidents in the same way, he said.
Stroder said the district is also looking at establishing a restorative justice program at all grade levels.
While bullying may manifest itself at schools, Stroder said it is a community issue, and not just a school problem.
Access to good info
One of the greatest challenges for parents is what their children have access to, McClish said. Although she knows not everything on the internet can be controlled, she believes more should be done to block harmful material.
“I know Lily learned how to kill herself from the internet. I know Lily watched livestream suicides,” she said.
For months, she said she could not bring herself to look online for what her daughter may have seen prior to her death. But when she did, she couldn’t believe what she found.
“I’m a full believer in freedom of speech, but that’s not freedom of speech. That is detrimental to society and is destructive. And their brains, they don’t have the life experience to be able to process or filter all of that stuff they can have access to. I wish I had not allowed her to have that amount of access. I wish I would have restricted it more,” McClish said.
“We talked. But I didn’t know how much she was withholding from me until later, in terms of what kinds of things she might be looking at.”
Even if parents can’t control everything that children see online, she hopes positive information can be found just as easily as the negative.
“If the negative information is that accessible, then we have to make sure that the other is even more available and it is as easy as them just hitting a button to get a response from someone,” she said.
McClish says students should know about the SafeUT app, a suicide prevention and crisis app created by a Utah lawmaker three years ago. It is the first app that allows students to confidentially provide tips about perceived threats at school and connect them to crisis resources.
In Utah, bullying was the No. 1 tip reported by students using the SafeUT app between September and December 2016.
The SafeUT cellphone app gives youths confidential and anonymous two-way communication with crisis counselors at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute. The app is also used to submit tips to school staff if a student is aware of a threat or a person who needs help.
On average, the app generates 680 chats per month with crisis workers. During the school year, the app was used to relay 415 tips per month.
McClish says more children should also know about the Trevor Project, an online instant messaging service that links juveniles with counselors.
Stopbullying.gov is another website that provides resources for helping victims of bullying, including cyberbullying.
McClish is now working on establishing a stone monument at an area overlooking a lake. It was there where she has one of her fondest memories of her daughter before her passing.
Lily loved animals, everything from horses to rats, her mother said. For five years, the McClish family ran a dairy farm and Lily would often ride her horse to the lake. Her mother said Lily was fearless. And one day, she got her horse to plunge into the lake and swim.
“It was uncontainable, that joy that she had that moment. It was so beautiful to watch. She was fearless that way. She loved to ride faster than most adults are comfortable riding horses,” her mother recalled.
Her fearlessness and ability to ride faster than anyone else earned her the nickname “Wild Lily.”
Lily loved art and also writing stories. Her mother remembers her as a “compassionate, empathetic person.” But sometimes, her mother feared her daughter was too empathetic.
“I think it has always been hard for her to understand people’s cruelty. And that weighed heavily on her heart,” she said.