Journey in grief leads to new protections from bullying

The mourners followed the coffin of 15-year-old Grace McComas out of the church and into the morning sunlight of a beautiful Easter season. Christine McComas carried her child's stuffed toy in the crook of her arm. Grief made her look almost wistful.

As Grace's parents and her three sisters left the crowded St. Michael's Catholic Church in Mount Airy a year ago, they weren't thinking that their journey of grief would take them to Annapolis.


But the determination of that grief-stricken mother to tell her daughter's story — powered by a Ravens player, Maryland's first lady and a state legislator — resulted in "Grace's Law," which Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to sign Thursday.

For almost a year, Grace's parents say, the Glenelg High School sophomore endured taunts, threats, obscenities and hate speech online. The new law makes that kind of electronic torment punishable by a fine and jail time. No longer do those messages have to land in the victim's email box to be considered harassment.


Reflecting on the past year, Christine McComas said, "I look back and it surprises me. I knew we would honor her and who we are as a family.

"Sometimes I am shocked and bewildered by the path our lives have taken."

Christine McComas, a horticulturalist with the University of Maryland Extension, and her husband, Dave, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, had tried to get the school system, the police, the courts — anybody — to make the cruel tweets stop. Grace didn't even have a Twitter account, yet friends told her what was going on.

"She counted on us to help her, and everyone failed her," said Christine. "Grace was wounded. She was in constant pain and fear. She wanted it to end."

On Easter morning, as the family gathered for breakfast and Easter treats, Grace slipped away, locked her bedroom door and ended her life.

"The helplessness and the hopelessness got to be too much," said Gina Santoro, who counseled Grace and spoke with the family's permission. "It was almost like she looked for a sliver of opportunity to slip away."

When Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice heard of Grace's death — the daughter of his assistant, Deb Poquette, was a teammate of Grace's younger sister Gloria — he tweeted his outrage to more than 600,000 followers.

For Rice, this was personal. His younger sister had been bullied and he could not fly immediately to her side to right things, and it ate at him. Rice would convene two anti-bullying rallies in Howard County, in May and in July, with the McComas family on stage with him.


"I knew I had to take advantage of this moment," said Christine McComas of the spotlight Rice cast on her daughter's death. "I was determined to make sure this didn't happen to someone else."

Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley sponsors an anti-bullying campaign and visits schools with a very simple message, "Be nice!" She picked up the newspaper that day last spring and read of Grace's death.

"I was dumbfounded," she said. "How could this have happened? How could we have failed another child?"

She invited the McComas family to Government House in Annapolis. A long, sad afternoon grew into an intimate dinner between the two families whose children are close in age.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman met with the family — "a meeting I will never forget" — and the county police chief to search for a way to bring charges in Grace's death, as well as to address this invasive, amorphous bullying among school children.

But Maryland's law only permitted prosecution based on threatening correspondence sent directly to the victim.


Grace McComas was not on the mind of Baltimore County Del. Jon Cardin when he wrote a rough draft of legislation that might, if nothing else, bring some awareness to cyber-bullying. Kids were hurting kids, he said, and the teachers and parents had not a clue.

He reached out to the first lady and she said she had a family she wanted him to meet. And she pledged to do whatever she could to move the bill forward.

"That's when I called a friend, Michael Meyerson at the University of Baltimore Law School," said Cardin. "We had to make sure we did this right."

Meyerson worked to craft a bill that would respect the First Amendment protections of free speech while giving law enforcement a tool to use against anyone using electronic communication to threaten or inflict emotional distress on a minor.

This new focus — legislation that would give law enforcement and schools a tool and a deterrent — gave Grace's parents only a brief distraction from the unalterable fact of Grace's death.

"They were the only times of clear, focused thinking," said Christine McComas of working on testimony to support the bill. "Dave and I found we could keep it together and do what was needed publicly. But then we would spend an equal or greater amount of time afterward grieving.


"Even when the news was good, there was always the realization that our vivacious and sweet daughter is forever gone."

Grace's parents and her older sisters, Cara, a senior at Stevenson University, and Megan, a sophomore at Salisbury University, testified before the legislature, their voices breaking.

"I wish I wasn't here," Christine said to reporters after testifying. She read the tweets aloud, including the ones urging Grace to kill herself.

"It is gossip and hatred at the speed of electronic media," she said.

Cara, a nursing student, said that the first time she performed CPR, it was on her sister. "That never should have happened."

Afterward, the eyes of the family were red-rimmed and they looked exhausted by grief.


"The legislative process moves in fits and starts," said Christine McComas. And there were devastating low points, such as when one delegate said loudly, "It's the Internet! Just turn it off!"

The law passed the Maryland House and Senate unanimously, though it may still face court challenges. Cardin said it is almost unheard of for a social issue of this complexity to be addressed in one legislative season.

"Sen. [Allan] Kittleman [who sponsored the Senate version of the bill], arranged for Gloria and I to be on the Senate floor with him to witness the moment," said Christine. "It was momentous and bittersweet at the same time.

"I am hoping that in the future we will look back as a society and say this was the moment when we began to protect our children...and that goodness and kindness won."

Katie O'Malley now keeps a picture of Grace on her desk. "I hope this will help the family mend. Their grief has been so incredible."

Ulman, who had been so frustrated that there was nothing in the Maryland law that would allow the police to address the cyber-bullying, is pleased with the change.


"I am glad we have it," he said. "I am sorry that we need it."

Among the sisters, Megan thinks Grace would be confused that there needed to be a law, that it was not just part of human nature to be kind. "But I think she would be very happy that we didn't let her dying be in vain."

Gloria thinks the law is just the kind of thing her sister would have gotten done. "She was a person who if you give her an idea, she would run with it," said Gloria, who has grown to look just like her absent sister.

Christine, smiling, said she thinks Grace the teen-ager would have been mortified by all the attention. But she added, "I remember standing over her body and not knowing what I would do. That it just flowed into this is a wonderful feeling."

Grace's father, Dave, thinks she would "have loved this law.

"Grace was always looking out for other people. This law is in line with who she was."


Cara McComas delivered the eulogy that spring morning more than a year ago.

"There was a light about her that brightened everyone else's day," she said of her funny, tender-hearted sister, who once tried to save the life of a garden slug.

"Her death was a tragedy. But nothing about her was sad."