Instead of making plans to gather McKenzie and her cousins for Christmas, the child’s family is preparing to bury her Saturday after she hanged herself. Her body was discovered at their home in Linden, Ala., on Dec. 3 by her grandmother, family members told the Tuscaloosa News.
Now, they are blaming bullying for the death, saying the black fourth-grader had told teachers and an assistant principal at U.S. Jones Elementary School that she was being harassed. Her mother, Jasmine Adams, told a CBS affiliate that the abuse appeared to have been racially motivated, directed against her daughter because she was driven to school by a white family and had developed a friendship with a white boy. On Facebook, Adams mourned her daughter’s death, writing, “My world is gone.”
“She was being bullied [by] the entire school year, with words such as ‘kill yourself,’" the 9-year-old’s aunt, Eddwina Harris, told the Tuscaloosa News. She was also told, “you think you’re white because you ride with that white boy,” Harris said, and called “ugly” and other unprintable epithets.
“Just die,” Adams was instructed, according to her aunt, who has turned the family member’s death into a call to action against bullying.
Harris, a TV host in Atlanta, is promoting a GoFundMe page soliciting donations for “The McKenzie Foundation,” which “will serve as a source to stop” bullying, the page promises. She also endorsed the sale of $7 buttons imprinted with the child’s face and the words “Gone to [sic] Soon” and “STOP BULLYING.” “God has blessed me to help others with my platform, and now it’s time to help,” she told the Tuscaloosa News. “There are so many voiceless kids.”
But the school — whose motto is, “Where hope begins and dreams come true” — disputes the family’s version of events. Officials said there was no record of bullying. Alex Braswell, an attorney for the Demopolis City Board of Education, told the Tuscaloosa News on Tuesday that the school system conducted an internal investigation and found no basis for the family’s claims.
“We have concluded our internal investigation to the allegations of bullying which led to this senseless death,” Braswell said. “There have been no findings of any reports of bullying by either the student or family. The findings of this internal investigation are consistent with the results of the investigation of the Linden Police Department at this point in time.”
Reached late Tuesday, Linden Police Chief Robert Alston told The Washington Post that his department was still looking into the matter.
“We weren’t able to confirm whether she was bullied or not at this point,” he said. “We’ve talked to several officials at the school, and all of them said they have no official report of any bullying.”
But he also said the girl’s family was sticking with its story. While he didn’t know the 9-year-old personally, Alston said he knew her family and had no reason to doubt their account. “They’re very good people,” he said.
The 9-year-old’s mother said her daughter had told her that “one particular child” was writing her “nasty notes in class,” according to CBS. “It was just things you wouldn’t think a 9-year-old should know. And my baby to tell me some of the things they had said to her, I was like, ‘Where are they learning this from?’” Adams said.
Other students may be able to shed light on the situation, Alston said, but the police investigation was made more difficult by the young age of McKenzie and her classmates. “There’s resistance from parents who don’t want to get their kids caught up in this,” he said, calling the events “tragic.”
The police chief said he had requested a preliminary autopsy and would soon be able to review it. The Marengo County coroner couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
The neighboring Pine Hill Police Department mourned the 9-year-old’s death in a Facebook post, saying Adams was a “VICTIM of BULLYING."
According to StopBullying.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 1 in 3 students say they have been bullied at school. Most of the abuse happens in middle school. The government site also provides information about how to get help. While it remains unknown if “bullying directly causes suicide-related behavior,” according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, “bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior are closely related. This means youths who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youths who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior.”
Meanwhile, only about 20 to 30 percent of bullied students tell an adult, according to HHS.
Harris told the Tuscaloosa News that her niece had been forced to transfer out of a previous school because of bullying, which prompted her mother and grandmother to complain to the Alabama State Board of Education.
Timothy Thurman, the superintendent of the Linden City School District, told NBC News that Adams had been enrolled in kindergarten at Linden Elementary School for only 22 days, and had left for unknown reasons.