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Mourners wear blue after 15-year-old's suicide

BullyingMedia IndustrySuicideChristianity

The mourners wore blue nail polish, blue-striped ties, blue jewelry and crisp blue dress shirts. Blue hoodies and blue hair bands.

Blue was Grace McComas' favorite color, so that's what mourners at her visitation wore Friday in memory of the 15-year-old Glenelg High School sophomore who took her life recently to end the pain, her family said, of a cyber-bullying campaign against her.

Meanwhile, a social media "event" — blue4grace — was begun by friends and quickly went viral, stretching far beyond Howard County.

"American Idol" runner-up Lauren Alaina tweeted to the blue4grace campaign, sending prayers to the family, and the issue caught the attention of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who is planning an anti-bullying event next month. There also were pledges to participate from as far away as Ireland and the Czech Republic.

Many mourners who packed St. Michael Roman Catholic Church in Mount Airy for the visitation were wearing blue, too. Members of Grace's family — sisters Cara, 20, Megan, 18, and Gloria, 11; and her parents Chris and Dave McComas — were heartened by the blue campaign.

"It's like she's not gone," said Gloria.

"We can go on knowing her story can save someone else," said Megan.

Grace's mother said she found an entry in her daughter's journal saying that her hope for the new year was to "find happiness and forgive those who had hurt her."

Chris McComas said the cyber-bullying had lasted for months and was carefully documented by the family, but relatives did not discuss details.

"She was an extremely tenderhearted girl," the mother said of Grace, who committed suicide on Easter Sunday. "Words can hurt, and it needs to be said."

Howard County police said an investigation into her death is continuing; no further details were released.

An average of 25 boys and girls, ages 15 to 19, committed suicide in Maryland each year from 2005 to 2009, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How many teens might have taken their lives because of bullying is not known.

What's clear is that cyber-bullying is prevalent, said Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer who advises Facebook and MTV on online safety. Aftab also is executive director of WiredSafety, which she describes as the world's largest cyber-safety charity.

"I don't want the kids to be more resilient," Aftab said. "I want the kids who are doing it to stop. I want friends of the kids being bullied to stand up and say, 'I am with you.' The popular kids, the smart kids, the big kids need to stand up and say, 'Stop.'"

Grace's death has sparked an outcry throughout cyberspace, including Tumblr posts by friends, and friends of friends. By late Friday, more than 1,000 people had joined the "Wear Blue Friday 4.13 in Grace's honor" event on Facebook. On Twitter, Alaina, the 2011 "American Idol" runner-up, posted, "#blue4grace prayers to her family. It's horrible when the world loses young people."

Rice, the Ravens player, asked Grace's family to help him with an anti-bullying town hall event he is planning in early May in Howard County.

Rice said though his publicist, Deb Poquette, that he felt compelled to speak out, and about six weeks ago, he posted a message on his Facebook page against bullying.

In the 10 days since Grace's suicide and the death of another Baltimore-area teen, he has received some 1,500 emails and Facebook messages on the subject. Most messages were from the Baltimore area, but some came from as far away as England and New Zealand, Poquette said.

"I have heard heartbreaking stories that have literally rocked me to the core," Rice said through the publicist. "I am committed to raising awareness, to give kids a voice.

"I just want to let them know they are not alone, that bullying can damage, change and even end a life. Bullying is a big deal. Kids: There are resources out there to help. Ask for help and don't stop asking until you get it."

The conversation is timely, with Friday's national release of "Bully," a documentary that premiered a day earlier in Baltimore. Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley, who took part in a town hall event after the screening, has made anti-bullying a top initiative.

"There is nothing more heartbreaking than a parent losing a child, and it is tragic to hear when a child commits suicide due to bullying, but it is our responsibility as parents, as students, as educators, as one community, to make sure that these incidents don't happen in our schools and communities," O'Malley said in a statement Friday. "When it comes to bullying, everyone is a victim — our kids, our communities, our schools, our educators and administrators, and our families."

Maryland, the seventh state to enact an anti-bullying law, is working to improve reporting systems to capture bullying incidents and to educate more people on the impact, O'Malley said.

The state has seen several high-profile bullying cases in recent years. In 2010 a $10 million federal lawsuit alleged that Howard County school administrators did not do enough to protect a student who was being bullied. The student, a sixth-grader at the time, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after being assaulted by "gangs of male, young adolescent peers," according to the lawsuit. The suit was dismissed before trial; that decision is under appeal.

Maryland educators have increased efforts to stamp out bullying since the 2005 Safe Schools Reporting Act was passed to require districts to report bullying.

In the most recent report, released March 31, the Maryland State Department of Education cited nearly 4,700 incidents of bullying, harassment and intimidation in the 2010-2011 school year, up from about 3,800 in 2009-2010 and 2,100 in 2008-2009.

Anne Arundel County schools reported 409 incidents in 2010-2011; Baltimore City, 541; Baltimore County, 510; Carroll, 314; and Howard, 300.

In Howard, where Grace attended school, school district spokeswoman Patti Caplan said an anti-bullying task force was established a number of years ago, resulting in several initiatives to address the issue.

Caplan said the school board will discuss bullying at its next board meeting on April 26. The school system is also working with the PTA to sponsor an anti-bullying presentation. A speaker will present a session in the morning with school psychologists as part of a countywide professional development day, and then in the evening with parents.

In the aftermath of Grace's suicide, Caplan said, the school system continues its efforts to keep kids safe. The district did not comment specifically on cyber-bullying aimed at Grace.

"I don't know if there's anything you can do in response other than making sure that you're reinforcing the message you have out there all the time," Caplan said. "We know that sometimes [suicide] can lead to other students attempting to take their lives as well, so we are on alert as to that potential and making sure that those who work closely with the kids are watching the kids that they feel might be at risk and making sure at a time like this they may be getting some extra support."

Aftab, the New Jersey-based Internet expert, said "copy cat" suicides do happen and that parents and officials need to pay special attention. Bullying is something most students encounter, she said.

WiredSafety's nationwide survey of 44,000 middle school students, conducted three years ago, showed that 85 percent to 90 percent had been bullied online at least once. Only 5 percent said they would tell their parents.

Parents are typically surprised to learn that their child may be a cyber-bully, Aftab said. "Often, the only difference between a victim and a bully is the last one to click," she said.

Aftab said parents should talk to their children about being involved in cyber-bullying, either as the victim or instigator, and take steps to address the matter. For instance, parents should be watchful to see if a child's behavior or attitude about social media and technology, such as text messaging, has changed, which could be an indication they have been harassed, she said.

Children can be cyber-bullied in a number of ways: by a one-on-one threat, with an attempt to ruin a reputation by name-calling or exclusion; through someone accessing their account and sending out nasty messages; or with an invasion of privacy, such as someone posting a video of them undressing at a slumber party.

Anne Townsend, chief academic officer and president of the Baltimore-based Mariposa Child Success Programs, said children and teens don't have the coping skills to put bullying into perspective, but they can learn to do so with the help of parents and teachers. Mariposa offers training for adults — parents, teachers, guidance counselors — through many Maryland public schools.

"You're seeing children growing up in an environment that is overwhelming their social and emotional coping skills," Townsend said. "With the lack of these coping skills, kids are more likely to bully and be bullied. It is systemic at every level."

Adults can combat the problem by developing relationships fostered with empathy and a sense of understanding, Townsend said. Parents are usually quick to offer a solution, but the key is to help the child discover his or her own problem-solving skills.

"One question is: Is it getting worse? We don't know. Kids are afraid to tell because there is a culture of silence around bullying," Townsend said.

On Friday, Grace's family marveled at the blue4grace campaign. "The very thing that caused her pain is now lifting us up," said her mother.

They also took comfort in knowing she will live on through the donation of her organs. Grace was kept on life support until her organs were harvested. Her liver went to a 10-year-old boy who had been waiting for a transplant since he was 3.

"There was no question in my mind," her mother said, "the opposite side of the devastation we are feeling is the joy those families can now feel in equal measure."

Baltimore Sun reporters Joe Burris, Mary Gail Hare and Erica L. Green contributed to this article.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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