The suicide of an 11-year-old Champaign County student has brought national attention to what local experts call an epidemic of bullying, which her parents say contributed to her death.
Bethany Thompson was found dead from a self-inflicted gun shot wound at her home on Oct. 19. It’s the second time in almost five years that an 11-year-old Triad student has killed themselves.
Bethany was a cancer survivor who lived through brain surgery at 3 years old. During surgery, a nerve was hit that made her smile crooked. Her mother, Wendy Feucht, and father, Paul Thompson, believe their daughter was bullied by Triad Middle School students because of her smile and that the school didn’t do enough to stop it.
“It was constant harassment, constant put downs, over and over and over,” Thompson said.
Triad Superintendent Chris Piper and the school board are in the midst of an investigation, Piper said, and he was unable to discuss specifics regarding that or Bethany.
He previously said Triad is constantly working to limit bullying in schools.
“In our middle school, there is a concerted effort to educate the kids to change negative behaviors and (for staff) to deal with situations,” he said.
Bethany was a vibrant youngster who would do anything to make a friend laugh, her mother said.
“She was always doing nice stuff for people,” Feucht said. “She would have given everything away that she had to make someone else happy.”
One in five students in the U.S. will be bullied before they graduate, according to the Pew Research Center. The Bully Project found 13 million kids were projected to be bullied in 2012.
And bullies today have virtually unlimited access to their victims compared to a decade ago, said Wittenberg University Professor Kelly Dillon, who has studied bullying and cyber-bullying.
“Twenty years ago before we had the internet, when you left school the school yard, bullies stayed at school or went home as well,” Dillon said. “But nowadays in order to be connected, you have to be online.”
‘Full of life’
Her father called Bethany a great kid who loved God, her family, animals, super heroes and swimming.
“She was full of life, fun loving,” Thompson said.
Feucht fondly remembered a time just before Bethany’s suicide when she stuck a hair clip on her tongue and began singing the ABCs.
It’s moments like those that will stick with her mother forever.
“She was a goofball, she was funny,” Feucht said. “Always telling jokes. Making stuff up to get people to laugh. Happy.”
But behind the jokes and laughter was a little girl with tremendous courage, Feucht said, who faced severe self-esteem issues from the effects of the life-saving surgery to remove a brain tumor.
The family learned Bethany had cancer after she became ill at a birthday party for Feucht’s mother.
“The kids had been eating a lot of junk and were running around playing and Bethany had thrown up,” Feucht said.
The incident didn’t raise any concerns at first but Bethany continued to be sick for a few days.
“She threw up a couple more times and my mom called me and said something is wrong,” Feucht said. “We went to her pediatrician and he said she was dehydrated and something wasn’t right.”
Doctors examined Bethany but were unable to find what was ailing her, so they sent her to Children’s Hospital in Columbus where a CAT scan determined she had a brain tumor.
“It was very rough on the family and our church family,” Thompson said.
Her parents said Bethany’s treatment started quickly. Within days Bethany was on an operating table while a doctor attempted to buy the then 3-year-old more time by removing the tumor.
“The surgery started at 1 p.m. and it was an eight to eight-and-a-half-hour surgery,” Feucht said.
The surgeons successfully removed the tumor, giving her a chance at surviving. A few months later she began an intense treatment of radiation, subjected to the highest possible doses 35 times.
“They went in on each side of her head behind her ears,” Feucht said. “She was bald back there on each side. They would sedate her each time, Monday through Friday starting at 8 a.m.”
Every three months for the past eight years, Bethany had to undergo follow-up scans to see if the radiation worked, and if the tumor stayed away.
“You sit in a waiting room biting your nails,” Feucht said. “That type of radiation they can only give once and if it comes back, they said there was only a 30 percent chance of survival.”
The cancer never came back.
“We were able to get through it,” Thompson said. “It was a great accomplishment and thank God, we got through that.”
But the victory came at a price.
When operating on Bethany, the surgeons accidentally hit a nerve that caused her smile to become crooked. It caused her trouble as she grew older and learned that she looked different.
“I don’t know how many times I stood in the mirror with Bethany and we looked at her face and we talked about how beautiful she was on the inside and on the outside,” Feucht said. “And how God made her this way and that he does not make mistakes and the way that her face looked saved her life. That was part of saving her life, getting the brain tumor and cancer and she would smile and be OK with it.”
However her confidence didn’t last after someone would make a remark about her smile, Feucht said, and her family would again have to boost Bethany’s self-esteem — assuring her that she was beautiful.
“I gave her all the self-confidence that I could give her,” Feucht said. “Standing in front of the mirror (saying) ‘Look. Look at yourself. You are funny, you are beautiful. Your hair is beautiful, people pay millions of dollars to get hair that looks like yours.’ And try to build her up and make her feel special.”
Feucht believes Bethany knew how much her family loved her. But it wasn’t enough to overcome the harassment at school.
Feucht has been contacted by people from around the globe who have offered their sympathies and support after hearing Bethany’s story.
A Missouri softball team, the 3N2 Force, has decided to dedicate their 2017 softball season to an anti-bullying campaign in her name. On Dec. 3, they held a forum in Holden, Mo., where they hosted Feucht and Gabrielle Ford, a leading voice against bullying.
“It went great,” Coach Craig Chamberlain said. “Wendy was a powerful speaker and I know she got through to a couple girls there.”
Chamberlain said a girl in the audience identified herself as someone who had contemplated suicide and Feucht’s speech encouraged her to ask for help.
“It was touching, there wasn’t many dry eyes in the house,” he said.
Paul Thompson said he hopes his daughter’s story prompts parents to talk to their children about safety.
“I am still in shock,” he said of Bethany’s death. “I did not see any signs. The only thing is just teach your kids to be kind and not to be a bully and teach your kids that if you are being bullied tell somebody, don’t be afraid.”
The second time
Bethany was the second 11-year-old Triad Middle School student who committed suicide in the past five years.
The first was Kamden Ketchell. Kamden killed himself in in April 2012. His dad, James Ketchell, said he also believes Kamden’s death was connected to bullying at school.
“Bullying has been around forever and we are unfortunately never going to be able to completely eradicate it,” Ketchell said. “But we can bring awareness and change.”
In the days following his son’s suicide, he was angry. He wanted to blame someone; he blamed himself. But through his faith he decided to take the tragedy and do something good.
“Unfortunately the grief you go through when you lose a child like that, it doesn’t really go away it just kind of transitions,” Ketchell said. “I had to reach a point where this isn’t getting me anywhere and if I am going to make a difference and do anything good in my son’s memory … is to let go of that and focus positively. And it’s hard to do because there is so much negative, a lot of hurt and I had to let go of it.”
Ketchell has traveled the region through the Kamden J. Ketchell Foundation to preach suicide prevention and reach as many children as he can.
He said his interactions with Triad Middle School has been positive since the 2012 tragedy.
“I believe the schools are trying and doing the best they can,” Ketchell said. “Triad schools have worked very well with me through this.”
In recent days he has sat down with Triad school leaders and Bethany’s family in hopes of toning down some disputes between the them. Paul Thompson and Feucht recently spoke at a school board meeting where they requested the administration resign, saying they weren’t provided documents they requested and that they believed the school should have done more to prevent bullying.
Ketchell said he believes more can be accomplished when everyone works together.
Bullying is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
The term bullying has been in the news a lot lately, Dillon said, and it’s important to understand what behaviors are actually bullying.
“In order for it to be bullying, it has to have three distinct characteristics,” she said. “First, it most be intentional. Someone must be intending to harm someone else either through words or actions or threats.”
The actions also have to be repetitive, she said.
“If someone does something unintentionally once, they are being rude,” Dillon said. “If they do it twice, they are being mean. However, if it happens over and over again, that’s bullying.”
The actions also have to have a power imbalance, she said, in which the bully is trying to control the victim through fear or other means.
Feucht believes the definition of bullying should be expanded.
“The definition of bullying needs to be changed to anything that you say to someone to hurt their feelings or to make fun of them or to make them feel like less of a person,” Feucht said.
That might have prompted Triad leaders to react quicker, she said, and she believes the school didn’t do enough to prevent Bethany’s from being ridiculed.
“(The schools) are the ones that need to step in and say, ‘That wasn’t nice. We don’t talk to people that way,’ and have them hold the children accountable for the things that they say and the way they make other people feel,” she said.
The current definition of bullying is different than what most parents perceive it as, said Linda Locke of Mindful Presence Ministries. Locke worked as an elementary school principal in Urbana for 19 years, has a Ph.D in educational leadership, and wrote four books on bullying and how to stop it.
There’s a difference between being bullied and being picked on, she said.
“It’s a fine line and parents don’t understand that,” Locke said. “They think if somebody is being mean therefore they are a bully. And so part of what I talk about is that we are all growing and changing and labeling people is not how we fix the problem.”
School-aged children are developing communication skills, she said, and not all nasty treatment that goes on in schools is intended to be bullying.
“Kids just can be mean,” Locke said. “They say hurtful things and they don’t have empathy yet and they don’t understand what it feels like for the other person.”
‘Not an easy fix’
Bullying is a societal issue that cannot be fixed by schools alone, Locke said. It takes everyone stepping up and telling bullies to stop to cut down on incidents.
“It’s not an easy fix,” Locke said. “I know a lot of people want schools to fix the problem — schools cannot fix this problem. It’s a society issue.”
Locke said there are a lot of bullies including in the work place. She said the only way to prevent bullying is by “finding your voice.”
“One of the things I feel strongly about is shifting the culture to kindness,” Locke said. “Where unkind words, mean behaviors, are just not tolerated. And that requires everyone finding their voice because in any situation there are bystanders. People standing around and watching and saying nothing.”
People often don’t speak up when they witness bullying because they are afraid, Locke said. It’s likely that those witnesses aren’t alone in wanting to stop the harassment, she said, and once someone speaks up, others follow.
“We all have a role to play in helping people make good decision,” Locke said. “We all need to own that.”
Intervention also is an effective way to stop the aggressive behavior, Dillon said.
It’s important to take bullying seriously, Ketchell said, and many kids perceive everything in their life as permanent, when it isn’t. He encouraged parents to stay connected with their children and to let them know everything will be all right.
The best way to prevent it from happening is for everyone to lead by example, he said.
“We need to model empathy and compassion,” Ketchell said. “We need to show our kids this. Hopefully our kids will pick that up and take this with them as well.”
Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.