It was a surprise when 17-year-old Kuanna Farrell took her life last fall. But many of the teenagers who tried to follow her this year advertised their intentions months in advance, writing their suicidal thoughts on a Web site that no adult saw in time.
Two of Kuanna’s friends are now dead and three others were hospitalized after imitating the unusually slow way that Kuanna killed herself. The statistics are staggering: In the past decade, the entire county had never had more than one teen suicide a year, and federal health records show that every victim before 2006 was a boy.
The six girls were raised, by all accounts, in loving homes with attentive parents. One teen was on medication after a previous suicide attempt. Some were in counseling. All were friends, but some were just close enough to hug when they met. Others spent every day together.
But the grief that hit them after Kuanna’s death bound them closer than blood. They turned the girl’s porch into a shrine of candles and teddy bears. They wrote her every day with reports on their grief and their daily lives. Those notes, posted on Kuanna’s MySpace page, turned quickly to thoughts of suicide: just two days after Kuanna’s funeral, three girls posted that they wanted to die “soon” so they could see Kuanna again.
They were so deeply distraught as they built a makeshift memorial that they caught the attention of Kuanna’s mother, Dawn Araujo, herself so distressed that she could not bring herself to enter her apartment.
“I told the pastor [of Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ], ‘Somebody really needs to pray for these kids,’ ” Araujo said.
But all of the safety nets — parents, pastors, peers, school social workers and coaches for the many teams the girls were on — were not enough. According to parents, the only indications that these girls were ready to die were the disturbing messages they posted to Kuanna on MySpace.
No adult saw those until the chain of suicides was well under way.
Lynn Rafalik, who oversees the city school district’s social workers, guidance counselors and psychologists, said she never monitors social networking sites. Even when she was told Feb. 26 of the suicidal messages, each signed with the writer’s photograph but not their name, she said she would not try to identify suicide risks by reading the site. Two more girls attempted suicide on March 1.
One died. The other was discovered in time.
“I do not review MySpace. I would feel that would be the role of the parent,” she said. “We do know that kids place things on MySpace. I really feel strongly that it’s the parent’s role.”
She added that suicide prevention should not be solely the responsibility of a school. Only one of the students attempted suicide at school, and she was resuscitated.
“It’s not just a school issue, it’s a community issue,” she said.
But parents say the school should have informed them when Kuanna died so they could more closely watch for signs of depression. They also say they should have been told about the MySpace page, which can be found only by searching for Kuanna’s full name and could not be found by some parents, who only knew Kuanna’s nickname.
The school did send out a letter after the sixth suicide attempt, last weekend, but did not mention MySpace or name the victims.
Araujo was very familiar with Kuanna’s MySpace page — she knew, without looking, every photo and its origin. But she said that after Kuanna’s death, she couldn’t look at it. Her 20-year-old daughter saw it at least once but reported only that Kuanna’s friends were posting comments about their daily lives.
That hardly describes the note by one girl, who killed herself less than 72 hours after writing that she didn’t know how to go on without Kuanna.
In the phonetics of cellphone texting, she wrote that she was drinking liquor “in my room all alone with your picture” and could do nothing but think of Kuanna. She wrote that she was so obsessed, she could be considered a stalker.
“Cause I miss you that much; your face meant that much to me,” she wrote. “Honestly; nothing is the same.”
It wasn’t until she died on Feb. 23 that community leaders learned of the comments posted on the site, and even after some pastors found the page, no one seemed to agree on who should be responsible for identifying the distraught teenagers through their photos, tracking the girls down and counseling them.
Complicating matters, both school officials and parents agreed that the comments on Kuanna’s page might seem like typical teen exaggeration.
But given the situation, some parents said counselors should have taken action when girls posted that they couldn’t stand life without Kuanna anymore and wanted to join her.
As the MySpace debate continued, a third girl died and a fourth tried to kill herself March 1. In response, one victim’s mother called a community meeting Tuesday. The school district also held meetings. But grieving girls said they still had no idea where to go for help and were now being mocked by others for being “weak.” They said the climate at the school was so belittling that they refused to leave class to talk to counselors.
Then on Friday — after several days of community discussion — another girl wrote to Kuanna to ask for help.
“[The] damn shit’s real crazy right now,” she wrote phonetically. “Life real crazy for me but I’ma get through it. See you soon . . .”
With girls obviously still distraught, Kuanna’s mother decided to publicly explain exactly why her daughter committed suicide and implore others to stop.
Kuanna in her suicide note “wrote to her friend, ‘Be good.’ She didn’t say, ‘Come join me,’ ” Araujo said. “Kuanna wouldn’t want her friends to commit suicide. She’d be like, ‘What are you guys doing? No, don’t do that!’ ”
She added that her daughter killed herself over deeply personal problems. And unlike some of the girls who tried to die after her, Kuanna spent years fighting a one-two punch of medical and emotional crises before finally giving up.
Kuanna’s father died in a drug-related shooting in 2002, leaving Kuanna deeply depressed. She also struggled with excruciatingly painful flare-ups of sickle-cell anemia. In her suicide note, she wrote that she was tired of the pain and wanted to see her father again.
Although her friends describe her as an “angel,” she wasn’t perfect. She was on probation for assault and was about to enroll in an anger-management class. She told her mother she wanted to take up boxing to express her feelings.
Then she planned to go to Hollywood as an actress, singer, songwriter, model and dancer. But her mother now wonders whether she was beginning to question her chances of success.
“We always used to say, ‘You’re our superstar,’ ” Araujo said. “When kids hear that all the time, ‘Oh you’re going to be a star,’ and inside they don’t feel that way — she was such an actor. Maybe she was acting at being strong.”
Before her daughter’s death, Araujo thought she was doing everything right. Kuanna had counseling. She met regularly with her probation officer. She had a close relationship with her mother; Kuanna even told her when she lost her virginity.
“Kuanna would tell me anything,” Araujo said.
Anything except this.
Araujo left for work as an LPN at Hometown Health on Nov. 25 after watching her daughter carefully gel her hair into the perfect style. Everything seemed fine, but she worried about leaving Kuanna, 17, home alone with her 16-year-old brother. From work she called home. No one answered.
Two hours later, her son came to work to break the news in person.
Kuanna killed herself in her bedroom in a slow manner that she could have stopped at any time in the several minutes it took to die. “That’s what makes it hurt so much,” Araujo said. “You want to believe it was an accident, that she didn’t really mean it, but she really, really did.”
A school psychologist has asked The Gazette not to describe the method — which all six girls used — for fear of inspiring copycats.
Grief and guilt
“As a parent, you look for signs — there were none,” Araujo said. “I can’t even believe it happened. She had such a wonderful personality. Me and Kuanna talked all the time and it still happened.”
Kuanna left behind a wake of grief and guilt. Now Araujo second-guesses herself, going over every second of the day before her daughter’s death. Were the two hugs she got from a friend a sign? Were her tears for her father the night before a cry for help? Araujo sat and talked with Kuanna that night — but should she have done something more?
“Maybe we didn’t realize how tired she was, because she was so strong. Maybe the strong ones aren’t really so strong,” Araujo said. “Parents, myself included, you don’t tend to focus as much on the strong ones, because they have it all together. Maybe we should.”