THORNDIKE — Family members of Kitty McGuire, the 13-year-old middle school student who committed suicide last week, said she was bullied in the months leading up to her death.
Family members organized a protest Monday in front of Mount View Middle School to drive their point home, while school administrators said it’s too early to know what caused the sixth-grader to take her own life.
Heather Perry, superintendent of Regional School Unit 3, said the district is investigating the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death.
Last week Perry said McGuire was subjected to at least three incidents of teasing that were “not bullying” or harassment.
On Monday, however, after the protest, which drew about 20 people, Perry would not rule out bullying as a possible factor.
“We are taking it seriously and conducting an investigation,” she said. “We haven’t come to any conclusions yet. When we have, we will share that.”
Perry said the situation is complex, and that school investigators are trying to look at it objectively. She said there is no definite timeline for the investigation, but that it would include interviews and a review of electronic communications and school bus security videos.
Students and family members who participated in the demonstration said bullying was what drove Kitty to commit suicide.
Timothy McGuire, 26, Kitty’s uncle, who said he was raised as her brother, said he wants the school to recognize Kitty’s death as a bullying issue, and to implement an anti-bullying program.
“I don’t feel like they do anything right now except look the other way,” he said. “We felt like we needed this to be public to get any action. It needs to be a public discussion.”
Perry said the school does have ongoing anti-bullying programs and that student leaders in the school have made it a focus.
While Kitty’s family wants the community to hear and feel the story of her death, Perry said school administrators are wary about glamorizing it, which some suicide prevention experts say could lead to other teen suicide attempts in the area.
“We understand that concern, but they could be doing some things,” Timothy McGuire said. “Right now the school’s answer is, ‘Don’t talk about it.'”
Perry said the school is focusing on helping students deal with the death of their schoolmate.
“You need to walk that fine line and show students how to appropriately grieve,” Perry said.
The school’s efforts have included providing counseling services to students, and organizing discussion groups of varying sizes.
“The research is very clear that you have to approach this in a multitude of ways,” Perry said. “We’re focused on offering support for the children.”
Perry said she supported the protest, which she characterized as a vigil.
“The messages that they shared were positive messages that the school wholeheartedly agrees with,” she said. “Everybody in the community is grieving. This impacted all of us.”
However, some students say the school is not allowing enough expression about Kitty and the role bullying may have played in her death.
Perry said school staff members have discouraged students from wearing pins and T-shirts that refer to Kitty, bullying and suicide.
Tenth-grader Tori Strain, 16, said she understands the difference between honoring Kitty and glamorizing suicide.
“We shouldn’t hide it,” she said. “We do not support suicide. We just want to support Kitty.”
She said that some students still were making hurtful comments about Kitty and her motivations for committing suicide.
While the school continues to investigate whether the suicide was connected to bullying, her family said the link is obvious. Their descriptions paint a portrait of a young teen who was different from most of her peers.
Kitty was targeted by fellow students because she was trying different ways to express herself, Timothy McGuire said.
“She was trying to figure out her sexuality,” he said. “She was trying to figure out who she was.”
For Kitty, part of that process involved dyeing her hair and wearing unusual earrings and unusual clothes, including some all-black outfits, he said.
At home, Timothy McGuire said, his sister put up a brave front.
“It was hard to get her to talk about it,” he said.
“I think they should be treating it as a bullying issue,” said Fred McGuire, who said he is Kitty’s grandfather as well as her legal guardian, having raised her as his daughter. Fred McGuire said Timothy is his son.
Fred McGuire said he overheard Kitty talking angrily with her friends on the phone about being bullied.
Kitty said students at the school “were obnoxious and making slurs toward her,” he said.
Fred McGuire said that it was part of an ongoing pattern that began when Kitty started being open about her sexual orientation.
He wanted to protect her, he said, but it was difficult to know what to do.
“She said, ‘Don’t call the guidance counselor. It just makes it worse,'” he said. He said Kitty went to the school’s guidance counselor herself two or three times to try to have the issue addressed.
While the bullying was mostly in the form of name-calling and ostracism, on at least one occasion, he said, it turned physical.
“One of the boys kicked her in the leg,” he said.
Just a couple of weeks before Kitty took her own life, Fred McGuire said, the bullying erupted into a confrontation between Kitty and two other children on the school bus.
“They were screaming at each other loudly on the bus,” he said.
There are electronic records of some of the bullying, Fred McGuire said, but they were unavailable because the family gave Kitty’s iPod to the police investigating her death.
Lt. Jason Trundy of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department said he could not confirm any details of the case because it is an ongoing investigation.
Memorial arrangements for Kitty are still being made, Timothy McGuire said.
Kitty was a sixth-grade student at Mount View Middle School in Thorndike, which is part of Regional School Unit 3. The district serves the communities of Brooks, Freedom, Knox, Jackson, Liberty, Monroe, Montville, Thorndike, Troy, Unity and Waldo.
This spring, Perry said, the school will host parent forums to talk about the situation.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287