Emilie Olsen enjoyed playing volleyball, attended church, hung out with friends, and was known by many as “Happy Emilie”. By many measures, she was a completely ordinary young girl. But she was also experiencing a disturbingly ordinary problem: bullying.
Emilie had arrived in the United States from China after being adopted by her parents, Marc and Cindy Olsen. While she had a relatively tranquil childhood, things began to noticeably change once she entered the sixth grade.
“When she walked into her classroom, she told me the kids would call her names and try to trip her […],” Cindy Olsen told WCPO Cincinnati. ‘So then we go to seventh grade and some of those kids are still there, but now there’s even more of them calling her names […] being mean to her.’”
Despite this, Emilie cultivated the reputation for being a cheery and kind-hearted individual. However, no amount of outward positivity would make the bullying stop. Verbal, cyber and physical attacks escalated, and hopelessness descended. On December 11th, 2014, she told a friend that she felt she was “causing all this trouble on earth”, she was “tired of being looked at as a freak” and her “New Year’s Resolution was to have a perfect suicide go according to plan”.
Weeks before any clock would strike midnight on a new year, Emilie got her wish. The very day she sent those messages she used her father’s rifle to end her own life.
The death of any young person is tragic. We think about what could have been, and all the potential they had. But young suicides are particularly scarring, because how could someone be driven to such a desperate end at such a young age?
But Bullying Wasn’t Involved?
Only a few days after Emilie’s suicide, the Fairfield City School District conclusively ruled that there was no evidence of Emilie being bullied, and that the school district could have done nothing to prevent this tragedy. Their defiant statement read:
“There have been many rumors and misinformation about bullying with regard to this tragedy. The district has never had an indication – by self-report, or reports from others – that bullying has ever occurred.”
Their investigation, however, must have taken place under a blanket fort with a team of sock puppets, because the evidence of bullying is tragically widespread.
On January 30th, 2014, Marc Olsen sent his first email to Fairfield City School administrators (assumedly a building principal):
“Emilie mentioned two girls…she is having problems with. From what I understand, there has already been physicality – kicking, pulling hair, etc. – between them. Unfortunately, it goes beyond that…I have a bad feeling that if nothing is done then this has the possibility to escalate into something worse.”
He sent another email on August 15th, 2014, telling the school administrators that his daughter felt “uneasy” about the upcoming year, and asked that she not be enrolled in classes with bullies from the previous year. The school agreed to this.
Mr. Olsen sent a third email to the school district on September 8th, 2014. He showed appreciation to principals who met with Emilie, but clearly stated that there were still big problems:
“Emilie did say that [redacted name] is in one of her classes and she is making gestures/noises toward her that is making her very uncomfortable and disrupting her during class. We just don’t want to see an escalation occur if it can be avoided all together.”
Evidence also showed that Emilie had met with administration officials several time during the fall of 2014 as a result of her slipping grades.
On top of everything else, a student file details a fight that occurred in the school cafeteria between Emilie and another student. The incident reports, written by Emilie’s own peers, describe Emilie as being “bullied bad” and “being messed with”. Police investigators never saw any of this written evidence because their investigation “didn’t take them in that direction” (??), and they just “took the school district at their word [that there was no bullying]”.
The preponderance of evidence does not just suggest Emilie Olsen was bullied, it suggests that she was the constant target of an odious crew that operated unchecked and unstopped by school officials.
Fairfield City School’s own policy demands that all incidents of bullying are brought to the attention of the district superintendent. So it is completely incomprehensible that superintendent Paul Otten continues to insist that “there is no credible evidence that bullying was a factor in the suicide”, and that “false reports and rumors” are exclusively to blame for any suggestion of the contrary.
Which leaves two possibilities:
- Middle school administration failed in their duty to relay the bullying information to Superintendent Paul Otten, OR
- Paul Otten is lying about never receiving reports, in an attempt to cover-up the mistakes that were made
Fairfield City Schools has not changed track from their statement of December 14th (linked above), and continue to defend it vigorously.
In late January 2015, Marc Olsen had a personal “sit in” during a school board meeting to send a message that “violence must stop” in the schools. He wants his daughter’s story to serve as a spur to action for the district.
Fairfield City Schools, however, isn’t eager to do much of anything, even as reports surface that the district is beleaguered by bullying problems. The school district now refuses to talk about the Emilie Olsen suicide at all (because it suddenly “violates student privacy laws” to do so), and a district spokesperson told local news that she was “done with them.”
Parents rose up at a recent school board meeting after the school board president dismissed a parent’s plea for changes in the district. The board President cut off the parent, who was discussing teen suicide. Another angry parent in the audience stood up and insisted she be allowed to finish. She desperately asked the board, “What do we do if our kids are being bullied at school? What are we going to start doing in the walls of the schools to protect our children?”
The school board offered no answer.
My high school alma mater is in the same athletic conference as Fairfield City Schools. I grew up driving by their high school and watching their football team play ours. So when I write this, it is extremely personal to me. I see myself walking through my halls and I think of how I would feel after two straight years of torment. And then I get angry that nothing has changed. As someone who has considered suicide more than once in his life, people who truly cared about me as an individual saved me. My friends — the people who invested in me — were the ones who convinced me to keep going. And things got better. Slowly, too slowly, but they got better.
However, I understand that as much as people try, we might not reach every suicidal person in the world. Not everyone will call a hotline, not everyone will reach out, and so people may chose to end their own lives. And while it is tragic and terrible, it doesn’t often leave anyone in particular “at fault;” it just hurts. Blame can be misguided and toxic for healing and moving on, but in the case of Emilie and other bullied students, taking responsibility is imperative for moving forward — for change.
Schools should be institutions where kids are safe, comfortable, and free to be themselves. And even if that isn’t always the case, that should be the finish line that administrators are racing toward. I don’t see a race here. I barely see a slow plod.
Top administrators have failed to admit their fault in this. There can be no progress until there are apologies and admissions of mistakes. Honesty is healing, but district officials appear more concerned about their image rather than being truthful about the basic facts of a tragic death.
I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that trying to find solutions is more important than covering up missteps, and answering a parent’s questions is more important than explaining parliamentary procedure.
I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that if you want a textbook example of how not to handle bullying in your schools, you can look no further than the administration of Fairfield City Schools.