Jefferson City police have not completed their investigation into the death of 12-year-old Eyana White, but many residents are concerned bullying may have contributed to her death.
Despite below-freezing temperatures and light snow, dozens of White's friends and family gathered outside Lewis and Clark Middle School a week ago to hold a candlelight vigil for the young girl. Several speakers at the vigil lamented bullying's pernicious toll and talked about ways the community could do more to stop it.
In early reports, police referred to the incident as an "apparent suicide," but their investigation is still ongoing, a department spokesman said Saturday. Police are still examining the events that may have led to White's death.
"In our initial report from the family, there was no mention ... no inclination or feeling... that bullying had anything to do with it," said Jefferson City Capt. Doug Shoemaker.
The girl's friends - and many in the community - are using the 12-year-old's death to send a strong message against bullying.
One of the speakers at the vigil, Alyssa Custer, 14, knew the younger girl from the time they spent together at the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City. Custer has created a YouTube memorial to her friend in which she shares an anti-bullying message.
"She could light up the room with her smile," said Custer.
Custer said the two girls hung out together at the club. There they played basketball, refined their moves for the step team and finished off their
homework together. Eyana enjoyed fixing her friend's lush, curly, dark Puerto Rican hair.
"We just clicked," Custer said.
She said her younger friend didn't talk about being bullied, but she believes it was happening.
"I've seen it happen at the Boys & Girls Club. It was little things ... like someone calling her "ugly' or telling her she "didn't have any style.' When it comes to bullying, it makes me mad, because I've been bullied myself," Custer said. "I'm a big girl ... bigger than most."
Custer wasn't sure if Eyana had been cyber-bullied. But she feels negative remarks made by other teens may have contributed to her friend's sad state of mind in the days leading to her Dec. 17 death at her East Side home.
"It's my first friend that I've lost. She should be having fun. She should be hanging out with her friends. But she can't do that now," said Custer.
The loss of someone so young has shocked and saddened many in the community.
As executive director of the Jefferson City Council for Drug-Free Youth, Joy Sweeney leads a team of counselors and teachers tasked with bringing bullying-prevention programs into the schools. Her work is aimed at preventing tragic situations like this one.
When boys pick on each other, it often turns physical. But when girls bully, they often create a special circle of emotional hell for each other.
Why do some teens, especially preteens, bully their peers so mercilessly?
Although she isn't excusing the behavior, Sweeney views bullying as a coping mechanism for youths who are experiencing emotional pain. While some turn that pain inward - perhaps cutting themselves or taking drugs - others deflect it outward with cruelty toward their peers.
Tearing someone else down makes you feel like you're lifting yourself up, Sweeney lamented. Sometimes followers learn to either emulate a leader's bad behavior or they keep their mouths shut, so they don't become ostracized themselves.
"No matter how talented you are, you know your own shortcomings," she said. "You feel that negativity toward yourself. Picking on someone else is a way of dealing with frustration.
"It's flawed. It's horrible. But it's a coping mechanism for preteens. It's a transference of self-hatred."
For each negative criticism a human hears, it takes 10 positive comments to reverse the harm, she said.
To reverse these trends, Sweeney's organization offers anti-bullying programs starting in the seventh grade.
"Our emphasis is on prevention," she said. "But prevention is all about effectively communicating the message."
Some of those programs allow students to experience what it feels like to be ostracized, in a controlled way, so they better can imagine how much it hurts and become less willing to inflict similar pain on others.
She noted research has shown peer-to-peer messaging is one of the best ways to reach students. In Jefferson City, the ninth graders talk to the sixth graders, and so on.
"It really helps to see other kids communicating this message," Sweeney said.
But she said for any effort to really work, it must be supported by the community.
"Children are just learning how to navigate this life. Adults have to model kind and compassionate behavior," she said.
Sweeney said preventing bullying is a challenge because technology allows cruelty to be more insidious and ubiquitous.
Cyber-bullying is something both Katie Doerr and Emily McMichael have noticed, too. The girls, who attend St. Peter Interparish School, were hanging out at Washington Park Ice Arena on Friday.
"You can be a big, old liar behind the keyboard," Doerr said.
She said her school does a good job of reducing cyber-bullying by enforcing policies, but it happens.
It's not uncommon to have to deal with "frenemies," people who compliment you to your face, but cut you behind your back or online.
"Kids will find something that bugs you and they'll keep on about it," she said.
"Fat. That's the biggest insult," said McMichael. She said the topic lends itself to a lot of back-handed remarks, such as: "You look less fat today."
"It's worse for girls," McMichael added. "Girls are meaner. They find more things to pick on."
Among many of the people interviewed, the idea that girls inflict more damage, and suffer more, seemed to be a consensus.
Perhaps bullying afflicts girls at a deeper level because they are more sensitive.
Leah Stiefermann and Mariah Twenter, both 14 and enrolled at Helias Catholic High School, agreed.
"Guys tend to handle situations differently," Stiefermann said. "They are thicker-skinned. Less vulnerable. It might hurt as much, but they don't show it."
Twenter feels it's easier to deliver unpleasant remarks with a text than with a phone call.
"There's been times when someone has been really rude to me on a text, but then I see them in person and things are fine," she said.
"That's happened to me, too," Stiefermann added.
To add to the problem, girls are trying to reach an ideal of beauty unattainable for most.
"Girls are judged on their physical appearance," Twenter lamented.
And they blamed boys, in part, for doing the judging. "If you don't own the right look, you can't earn it. They (boys) don't give you the chance," Stiefermann rejoined.
Kalen Crawford, now 21, admitted he was bullied on occasion while enrolled in both Jefferson City's public and parochial schools.
"One time a senior threw grapes at my head," he lamented. "Bullying is one of those things you can't escape from, no matter what. There are predators and prey."
But even Crawford said bullying among girls can be subtle and harsher.
"You have to have the right clothes, the right make-up, the right body, the right hair," he said. "And girls will dissect it to pieces and they are going to attack."