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Rest in peace, Amanda

With a grey sky overhead, and a cold rain beating down upon their backs, more than 80 local high school students huddled around the edge of the rotunda in Memorial Peace Park Monday afternoon to remember Amanda Todd.

In the centre of the covered stage lay a bouquet of flowers, surrounded by glowing candles: a makeshift memorial for Todd, the  teenage girl from Maple Ridge who took her own life last week after being tormented by bullies.

She would have turned 16 next month.

Many who came to pay their respects never knew Todd, but they knew how she felt. Dozens of young girls, dressed in pink, held hands, hugging and leaning on each other for support, eyes cast downwards at the bouquet of flowers on the ground.

Jessica Standish, who graduated from Westview secondary in 2008, says she too was bullied throughout high school.

“I didn’t know her, but I went through what she did growing up, so that could have been me, I guess,” she says. “Girls just try so hard to fit in, and sometimes it backfires like it did with me and it did with her.”

The bullying was so bad, Standish says she would make up excuses to not go to school, and spend lunch hours eating alone.

“It was a hard time for me,” she says softly.

Steve Forbes, who works for Westridge Security and looks after Memorial Peace Park, was one of the few adults at the vigil who was not wielding a television camera or a microphone.

High school can be a rough place for some kids, as Forbes found out after moving his family to Maple Ridge from rural Saskatchewan last year.

His youngest son spent a week at Garibaldi secondary school before refusing to go back.

“When you’re an outsider, it can be hard to break in,” Forbes told the crowd of teens. “So when you see kids out there who look a bit lost, reach out to them. What’s fatal is the isolation.”

Austin Brown knows that feeling well.

Brown and Todd struck up a friendship while attending Maple Ridge secondary together and says he came to the vigil to honour the memory of his friend, who helped him out after he was bullied.

“I wasn’t very popular in elementary school, I didn’t have a lot of friends,” he says of his own experiences. “The only person I really had to talk to was my mom.”

Brown said he even contemplated suicide at the time.

When he told Todd about his experiences, he says she lent him a sympathetic ear.

“She said, you’re not alone,” says Brown. “Hearing that, it helped.”

Todd’s life began to unravel in the seventh grade, when she was convinced by a stranger on the Internet to expose her breasts on her friend’s webcam.

That stranger used Todd’s image to blackmail her into providing him with more child pornography, threatening to send the nude photo to her friends and family unless she sent him more photos of herself.

When she didn’t comply, the predator made good on his promise.

RCMP investigated, but no suspect has ever been identified.

Ridicule and humiliation would be constant companions for Todd after that.

Taunted by classmates at Westview secondary, she eventually changed to Maple Ridge secondary at the beginning of Grade 9 last school year.

But life only got more difficult for Todd there.

Todd and a male student at the school began a short-lived romantic relationship. When the boy’s girlfriend found out, the girlfriend and her friends bullied and taunted Todd, eventually beating her up.

Todd didn’t last long at Maple Ridge secondary. Midway through the school year she moved transferred to Port Coquitlam’s Terry Fox secondary, but the photos again followed her.

She changed schools again, this time to the Coquitlam Alternate Basic Education (CABE) program.

Todd attempted suicide, by drinking bleach. When her tormentors found out, they teased her and told her to try again.

On Oct. 10, she did.

Todd described how her life fell apart in a video she posted to Youtube a month before she took her own life.

Holding up hand-written placards, she recounts the events that would eventually lead to her own death.

Since word of her suicide came to light last week, the video has been viewed close to 15 million times.

Brown says he called Todd after he saw the video she posted.

“At the time she felt good because she got her story out there, she just wanted to get it off her chest,” he says. “But as days went by it got worse, because people were giving her hate comments on her video. People thought she was just doing it for attention. She was a mess.”

Brown says he didn’t think Todd would take her own life. Knowing what he knows now, he wishes he would have been there for her sooner.

Another friend of Todd’s spoke before the crowd at the vigil and admitted her friend made some mistakes.

“But people only knew the mistakes she made, but not who she was as a person,” she said as another girl held her arm.

Brown says he’ll remember Todd as a friend who was always there for him.

“I’m going to remember her for the person I knew her as, not for the person people said she was,” he says. “I’m going to remember her for the girl who gave me a positive outlook on life, who always listened to my story. I’m going to remember her as the girl who got her story out there, who was really beautiful and a great singer. I’m going to remember her as one of my closest friends.”

Brown says Todd’s death has changed his perspective about how he treats the people around him.

“Some people I’ve always felt like they are ridiculous and stupid, but when this happened, it told me that maybe they have a similar story to Amanda’s,” he says. “Maybe they just act that way because they are trying to fit in so they’re not bullied, so they’re acceptable to society around them.

“The reason people don’t want to open up is because they are afraid they’ll be criticized and made fun of. But we need to say something, we need to make it clear to them that they are not alone and we’re here for them if they want to talk.”

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