Bethany Thompson had curly hair and smiled just a bit “crooked,” her family said.
The 11-year-old beat a brain tumor when she was a toddler but sustained nerve damage that gave her smile a slant - and she was routinely bullied in school for her appearance, her mother told CNN.
One day last month, Bethany and a friend made anti-bullying posters that read “Buddies, not bullies” and presented them to administrators at Triad Middle School in North Lewisburg, a small town not far from Columbus, Ohio, her mother said.
The students were told they could not put them up.
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Classmates had been incessant in their torment of the girls that day, according to the Columbus Dispatch, and on the bus ride home Oct. 19 to the town of Cable, Bethany had a grim conversation with her friend.
“She told her she loved her and that she was her best friend forever,” Bethany’s mother, 34-year-old Wendy Feucht, told the Dispatch, “but that she was going to kill herself when she got home.”
Her friend’s father phoned Feucht.
But Bethany had already found a loaded handgun hidden in the house, and she had stepped onto the back porch and pulled the trigger, according to the Dispatch.
“I think that she was just done; she didn’t feel like anybody could do anything to help her,” her mother told the newspaper. “People need to know that even the littlest things can break someone.”
“There’s a piece missing,” Feucht told CNN. “I’ve had this constant in my life for 12 years and now it’s gone. Nothing’s going to be able to fill that hole.”
Feucht initially consented to an interview with The Washington Post but later could not be reached for comment.
Authorities called Bethany’s death an apparent suicide by gunshot, according to the police report, although the medical examiner has not yet announced the results of an autopsy.
Bethany’s mother told CNN she spoke with the principal days before her daughter’s death and was told he was investigating the bullying situation.
“Something has to change,” Feucht said. “Something is broken in the system and there are lots of different ways that this could have been handled.”
Triad Local Schools Superintendent Chris Piper said that there had been a complaint about bullying against Bethany last year and that school district administrators had taken “affirmative steps to protect the student.”
“As many school districts across the country are currently doing, the Triad Local School District is undertaking efforts to bolster anti-harassment and bullying training for both students and staff,” Piper said in a statement to The Post.
Furthermore, he said, “the Board of Education will not tolerate harassment, intimidation, or bullying of its students. Our District takes great pride in dealing with bullying immediately - it is stopped, students are disciplined appropriately, and measures are taken to protect victims. Parents and students who have any concerns about bullying are encouraged to report it immediately to any staff member.”
In 2014, another Ohio girl, 13-year-old Emilie Olsen, fatally shot herself in her Fairfield home.
The Asian-American teenager was picked on over her race and perceived sexual orientation, The Post reported at the time. Her parents sued Fairfield City School District, claiming that school administrators failed to stop the bullying that ultimately led their daughter to kill herself.
She was my princess, that’s my baby girl. Life revolved around her for me.
Paul Thompson, Bethany’s father
About 1 in 5 students reported being bullied during the 2012-2013 school year, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education.
The federal government, however, has cautioned against blaming bullying for youth suicides.
“The relationship between bullying and suicide is complex,” according to StopBullying.gov, a website managed by the Department of Health and Human Services. “Many media reports oversimplify this relationship, insinuating or directly stating that bullying can cause suicide. The facts tell a different story. In particular, it is not accurate and potentially dangerous to present bullying as the ‘cause’ or ‘reason’ for a suicide, or to suggest that suicide is a natural response to bullying.”
Forty-nine states have anti-bullying legislation, according to the government website.
Since Bethany’s death, her parents have been sharing photos on social media, showing the girl with the caption: “I’m against bullying.”
“I was never aware of the extent of it,” Bethany’s 37-year-old father, Paul Thompson, told CBS affiliate WHIO. “She was always happy when she was with me.”
“She was my princess, that’s my baby girl. Life revolved around her for me,” he told CNN.
On Sunday, hundreds of supporters showed up for a fundraiser for Bethany’s family at North Lewisburg United Methodist Church, raising $7,500 through a dinner and private donations, according to the cable network.
“I was honestly shocked, and I immediately called Paul, because I said, you know, ‘Please tell me what I’m hearing isn’t true’,” Ashley Cozad, who organized the event, told WHIO of the 11-year-old’s suicide.
“It’s devastating,” she added. “My daughter is 10 years old; she’s in fifth grade. Bethany was in sixth. So as a mom, it’s awful.”
Bethany’s family plans to use the funds to pay her funeral bill and to set up a scholarship in her name. They’ll also raise awareness about bullying.
“I am Bethany,” Feucht told CNN. “Anyone who’s been picked on, they’ve been Bethany.”
According to her obituary, Bethany enjoyed “swimming, coloring, shopping - especially Goodwill, music, Super Heroes and Pokemon. Every year, she looked forward to attending vacation Bible school and church camp. She loved all animals, horseback riding and her family.”
Family and friends buried Bethany in North Lewisburg.
“I want to send out my very heart felt thank u’s for everyone that is keeping me and the family in their thoughts and prayers this is a very hard time for all of us. I ask that. . .everyone please in this time of pain and sorrow remember that our little girl has lost her battle with life’s trials,” her stepfather, Jared Feucht, wrote in a Facebook post.
“Also that bullying is a much more severe problem now than what we ever thought when we were in school. I ask everyone to hold our little girl to the highest standards of dignity and integrity as our family perform our final acts of love and devotion laying her to rest. I wish to thank all who have been there for all involved in this most tragic and painful of times.”