Schenectady County

Community seeks answers after string of suicides

Kuanna always had their backs. When she led them to the group that called itself the 4 Block gang, s

Kuanna always had their backs.

When she led them to the group that called itself the 4 Block gang, she was there to protect them. For a while, it was fun. Boys had sex with them, they got invited to the cool parties where alcohol flowed freely and marijuana made them feel better than they’d ever felt before.

But then Kuanna killed herself on Nov. 25 and their world spiraled out of control.

According to the journals and Internet postings of the three girls who killed themselves this year and interviews with their parents and mentors, the girls were buried by a landslide of the most dangerous risk factors for suicide.

First among them was the fact that they had lost not only a friend but a trusted protector. Simply knowing a suicidal peer “significantly” worsens a teen’s ability to cope with suicidal thoughts, according to national suicide expert Madelyn Gould.

Imagine how much worse it would be if the loss of that friend meant the loss of the only barrier between the child and a host of bullies.

Kuanna issued a blanket threat to anyone who wanted to hurt her friends, saying in capital letters on her MySpace page: “If you f— with me or my peoples, you’re going DOWN.”

After her death, the teens she left behind filled her page with pleas for help.

“Kuanna omg plsz jusz help meh through this,” one girl begged, using an abbreviation for “oh my God.”

Another added, “i just wish yu were here to put bitches in their place.”

Without her, the members of her group were attacked regularly by other girls — another huge suicide risk factor. The abuse was so bad that Mary, 17, and Jalissa, 15, stopped going to school. Jalissa killed herself soon after, on Feb. 23, and Mary committed suicide on March 1.

Cherelle, 14, also wanted to avoid school. But her mother wouldn’t let her drop out, so she rode the bus to school — and then skipped classes whenever she could sneak away.

Unfortunately, leaving school didn’t seem to help any of the three. Other girls regularly attacked them on the street, even hunting them down when they ventured to a friend’s house.

Mary, who became pregnant shortly after Kuanna’s death, faced slurs from other girls who called her a “slut” and a “whore.” Making matters worse, she wasn’t sure whether to abort the baby. Her mother told her that abortion was un-Christian, while the mother of the baby’s father demanded that she abort.

“She was scared. She was badgered, bullied, threatened. Two kids called her all kinds of things,” Mary’s mother, Carolyn Turner, said. “The [boyfriend’s] mother called my daughter a slut. I tried to talk to her as one mother to another. I said she should have some compassion because kids make mistakes.”

Two days before Mary committed suicide, she took a phone call from the woman. Turner doesn’t know what the woman said, but her daughter kept repeating, “I am a child of God and I leave it in God’s hands.”

And then she killed herself. She was three months pregnant.

The act left Cherelle alone, bereft of three of the only friends she had made in her first six months at Schenectady High School. She had previously gone to the International Charter School of Schenectady and then attended middle school in Burnt Hills while living with her grandparents. She did well there, but she begged to return to Schenectady for high school, wanting to fit in among other biracial children and live with her mother again.

It was a decision she came to regret.

Alone among the more violent members of Kuanna’s gang, Cherelle was beaten so badly one night this spring that she staggered home with two broken ribs and a concussion. She told her mother then the 4 Block gang had attacked her.

What her mother did not know was that Cherelle had been hanging out with that gang since August.

At various times, Cherelle offered conflicting explanations for the attack. Once she said it was a gang initiation, but when pressed for details about whether she was being initiated, she said she was the hapless victim chosen by a stranger who wanted to earn entrance into the gang.

Cherelle also explained the beating as an act of random revenge. At one point, she said she was beaten because some 4 Block members were thrown out of a party she was attending. Infuriated, they took it out on her when she left to go home.

It’s possible that was closer to the truth. The girls’ journals suggest that relationships within the gang were fraying and fights were forming between factions.

They wrote that they wished Kuanna was still around, that she had been the mediator who kept them together.

“I remember back then when no one had any worries, [we] just had fun and never thought about any of the bullshit in our lives,” one wrote.

Another wrote that the gang members were now fighting “over dumb shit” or for no reason at all.

“Kuanna, you always had my back,” one wrote on Kuanna’s MySpace page. “And I really need you now.”

Cherelle’s journal also indicates that she might have had second thoughts about the gang.

“She wrote, ‘I just don’t want to be involved in that gang crap,’ ” her aunt, Debra Ryan, said. “I unfortunately think she made some wrong friends.”

In the journal, Cherelle also wrote that a 4 Block boy said he would protect her. All she had to do was say his name and the others would back off, she wrote.

But her mother wanted to call police.

“She broke down and cried, ‘No, Mommy,’ ” said Lisa Seymour, Cherelle’s mother. “There were threats that if she went to police, they’d do it again.”

Cherelle admitted that she knew her attackers, but she refused to identify them. Her psychologist said she shouldn’t be forced to talk to police. In the end, Seymour decided not to even report it to the high school.

“I felt they would make us go to police,” she said.

But when she called after her daughter killed herself on April 2, she realized Cherelle had faced far more than one attack. School officials told her Cherelle was badly bullied during school and had starting skipping class.

In Cherelle’s backpack, Seymour also found suicide hot line pamphlets. She learned that her daughter had been regularly attending the small-group school counseling sessions that began after the previous suicides. Seymour had never known.

“Why didn’t they tell me?” she said. “I understand about confidentiality but if you see my daughter’s face at these suicide groups a few times, you know she’s having some issues. If they attend a few times, you need to make a phone call.”

But there’s not much more that Seymour could have done. Her daughter had already been diagnosed with depression — long before she met Kuanna — and was on medication and seeing a counselor weekly. Twice in the last weeks before Cherelle’s death, she mentioned suicidal thoughts and her mother rushed her to emergency counseling sessions.

“She was getting the counseling she needed. So I don’t understand why . . .” Seymour said.

Depression is also a risk factor for suicide, but it’s generally not the cause. Experts say more than 20 percent of teenage girls get depressed during adolescence. Only 10 percent of those try to kill themselves and even in those cases, there is always something more, experts say.

Cherelle didn’t kill herself when she became depressed. She didn’t give up when she was beaten senseless. She didn’t try to die when she lost Kuanna, or when Jalissa died. She carried on for a month after Mary committed suicide.

What pushed her over the edge?

Seymour thinks the long line of suicides in Cherelle’s past overwhelmed her with grief. Not only did she lose three good friends just after transferring to a new school, but her cousin committed suicide in 2007 and her stepfather, Joe, who raised her, killed himself when she was 9 years old.

“When Joe died, that was hard enough,” Seymour said. “To go through that five times? I went through it twice and I’m having a real hard time. The fifth time, I think I’d be where Cherelle is.”

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