Spreading Message

Sandra Gonzales | San Jose Mercury News

They found her hanging inside a bathroom stall at San Jose’s Del Mar High School, a cord from a sweatshirt tied around her neck. Her note read, in part, “Yes this is suicide. Deal with it. Nothing can stop me now. I will kill myself.”

One year later in what would have been her senior year, 17-year-old Amanda Brownell lies in a vegetative state in a private San Jose nursing home. Her eyes flicker, and her voice gurgles as if she’s trying to talk.

What pushed her over the edge — careless gossip, scurrilous rumors or cyberbullying? No one knows for sure. But her parents are convinced she was a victim of cyberbullying, and along with Cambrian Park United Methodist Church and People Acting in Community Together have launched “The Amanda Network Anti-bullying campaign.”

Friday, on the one-year-anniversary of Amanda’s suicide attempt, her family, along with about 300 people gathered at City Hall, carrying tea lights and wearing wristbands and scarves in Amanda’s favorite color, purple, to spread their message.

“We want this to be the beginning of people talking about bullying and not being afraid to talk about it,” said her mother, Ann Brownell.

Whether Amanda was a victim of any kind of bullying is difficult to ascertain. Thus far, her parents have no actual proof of texts or emails written by any bullies. But what is clear, based on her suicide note and what she told others, is that Amanda felt she was a target of bullying — a testament to the challenges of the turbulent teenage years.

“These are very tough years, with all the pressures to be liked and part of the incrowd,” said Bruce Copley, deputy director at the Santa Clara County Mental Health Department. ”Any kind of negative comment can be devastating for teenagers.”

Copley added that with the new ways of communicating, such as Twitter, Facebook and e-mails, there is sometimes a disconnect in how a person takes those messages.

Though her parents do not have any text messages from the bullies, they say Amanda had told them weeks before she attempted suicide that she was being harassed. In her suicide note, addressed to a classmate, she refers to rumors she believed were being spread about her.

In the month before she attempted suicide, Amanda showed her close friend Andrea Dickey dozens of hurtful text messages that Amanda said had been sent by a bully. “Last year, when Amanda showed me the text messages about her, I was shocked,” Dickey said. “They made her feel alone.”

Amanda had long been emotionally fragile. She had suffered from depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since middle school and was in counseling and receiving medical treatment. Just weeks before her suicide attempt, her family discovered she had begun cutting her wrists — a practice she had engaged in during her middle school years.

Despite her troubles, her family says, there was much more to Amanda, who they describe as spirited, adventuresome and a gifted athlete.

Active in theater and a starring actress in several school plays, Amanda dreamed of performing on Broadway someday.

After her suicide attempt, the Brownells initially retained an attorney to pursue a claim against the Campbell Union School District, alleging nothing was done to stop the bullying. But the parents decided not to pursue any litigation because the charges were deemed too difficult to prove.

“What concerns me about this case is that this is a typical problem in schools; this one turned very bad,” said Seth Goldstein, the attorney who filed the claim on their behalf. “It is the kind of situation that parents and schools need to be aware of, the danger signs,” said Goldstein. “Cyberbullying and the problem of children being pressured by their peers is a strong motivator, the need to conform at that age.”

Del Mar High School Principal Jim Russell said the staff has met with students to discuss cyberbullying and its impact. Cyberbullying is an expellable offense, he said.

“Whether or not this was a case of bullying, the message of anti-bullying is definitely a good thing to get out,” Russell said. “We support the family, and we cooperated with the San Jose police, who investigated and determined it was not a case of bullying.”

Police would not comment on the case because it was an attempted suicide.

“Schools need to raise bullying as an issue,” Copley said. “The most important thing is that the victim needs to address how bad they feel, and the bully punished.”