Teenage hockey player’s bullying went unchecked before her suicide, parents say
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McKenna Brown killed herself in August during what should have been a happy time for her family. It was “the day before her brother’s 22nd birthday, three days before she was due to start her senior year, two weeks before our 25th wedding anniversary and a month before her 17th birthday,” said her father, Hunter. , to the Daily Beast.
Instead, following a relentless campaign of intimidation, the 16-year-old succumbed to a ‘tsunami-like feeling’ she couldn’t see through, her mother, Cheryl, said.
Three McKenna hockey league players have now would have were suspended for their role in the alleged bullying. The Browns expressed their gratitude to the league, but said officials near their home in Pinellas County, Fla., could have done more to help McKenna after previous instances of abuse.
The turbulence in her life began around the start of high school, they said, when McKenna sent a sexually explicit photo to a boy in another state. A former friend of hers with whom she had a falling out obtained a copy of the photo and distributed it, the Browns said. Almost immediately, McKenna faced brutal teasing and harassment.
The Browns were unable to file a lawsuit, they said, because they were told that filing suit for distributing child pornography could also incriminate McKenna for distributing the same content, even though he it was a photo of herself.
Around the same time, the Browns said, McKenna was sexually assaulted by an older teenager at a sleepover. “This room we only knew about two nights before she passed,” Cheryl said.
“His first semester of freshman school went pretty quickly,” Hunter recalled. McKenna’s parents found her a tutor, a psychiatrist, and a therapist, and managed to “put her back together mentally and emotionally.”
“She went back to school for a second semester of ninth grade, to focus on athletics and studies and put the past behind her. She got all her grades up to straight A’s,” Hunter said.
Still, these incidents hurt McKenna, who “was always an eccentric, clumsy, impulsive little kid,” he added. “People would just tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘You know, I don’t know what you did to raise this kid, but she’s amazing. You have done an excellent job.
McKenna devoted some of her energy to hockey, a sport she played after her older brother. In college, she had expressed an interest in playing goalie, but the equipment was prohibitively expensive.
“I actually got him to sign a contract,” Hunter recounted; he and Cheryl would pay for the equipment, but McKenna had to commit to staying in the sport for at least three or four years. “It never came back,” he said. “She basically doubled that time frame.” (She also played college flag football.)
Hockey took up much of McKenna’s time. Many games required trips out of state, which meant traveling with other girls and their families. ” I am a fireman. Cheryl works. We have [a daughter] who has special needs. So we can’t just leave her here with just any babysitter,” Hunter said of the bonds McKenna has forged with other players.
But the sport eventually became the epicenter of another torrent of abuse, her parents said.
The most recent conflict started like a normal teenage argument: A teammate’s ex-boyfriend expressed interest in McKenna and they started flirting. The trivial adventure didn’t sit well with some of the other girls, the Browns said. The teenage girls accused her of breaking “girl code” and reportedly began a coordinated effort to socially exile her. The Browns were not fully aware of what was happening.
In August, Cheryl and McKenna were watching a movie. McKenna said she was going upstairs to shower and clean her room. She could come back down, she said, unless she got too tired, in which case she would fall asleep.
The next morning, Hunter said, he returned from the fire station and spent several minutes talking with Cheryl about McKenna’s social struggles. Cheryl then prepared to go to church with McKenna and her brother. She went upstairs, Hunter recalls, “and then I just heard that scream.”
“I found her face down in her bedroom,” Cheryl said. “She can literally sleep anywhere. And the first time I walked into the room…it didn’t even occur to me that she was gone. I thought she was sleeping on the floor, too uncomfortable as it sounded. I went over to her to try to turn her over, and she was cold and stiff.
After McKenna’s death, the Browns said, several teammates and their families came forward with stories and evidence of the bullying. “The girls were…appalled. The families were appalled,” Cheryl said.
They compiled evidence of the behavior, but it does not appear that the abuse violated the law. “Criminally there will be no liability,” Hunter said.
Cheryl said McKenna’s passing crystallizes the need to change cyberbullying laws, given the immense power social media has over the lives of children and teens.
“I would like there to be some responsibility and acknowledgment of what is happening,” she said. For the Browns, the awareness push offered an added sense of purpose.
“She’s not around, but she’s still helping people out,” Cheryl said. “It’s our mission: to help him continue to help others.”