It was family night at the Ehmke household in Mantorville, a small town in southeastern Minnesota. Rachel, 13, got her favorite meal, fettuccine and homemade rolls. She and her dad, Rick Ehmke, horsed around, talked and laughed. Later, they were planning to watch a movie.
Rachel had seemed in good spirits, even though her dad knew bullies had been picking on her again at her Kasson-Mantorville school, where she was in the seventh grade.
“She texted me that she wasn’t going to school Monday, and she was thinking about switching schools,” said Rick. “We never got a chance to discuss it further.”
Rachel said she wanted to finish some homework.
That night, Rick found his daughter dead in her bedroom. She had hanged herself.
She was buried Friday.
“I was the one who found her,” said Rick, a nurse who was not able to revive her. “It didn’t even feel like it was real.”
Rick Ehmke and his other daughter, Brittany, have been vocal since Rachel’s death April 29, speaking out about the tragedy of bullying. The suicide has rocked the small town and surrounding area. The Rochester Post-Bulletin even wrote a front-page editorial, begging students to see the tragedy as an opportunity to stop harassing other kids.
But Rick Ehmke isn’t speaking out in anger. There is an ongoing investigation into the bullying and rumors that Rachel had turned to a website for advice on how to commit suicide. But Ehmke doesn’t think there will be charges, and hopes there won’t be any against kids who taunted his daughter.
Professionals will underscore that suicides are complicated and often the result of many things, but everyone acknowledges Rachel was having a problem with harassment at school.
“If I could, I would embrace [the bullies],” said Ehmke. “Look, they are all good kids. They are 13. They made some bad choices, and right now everybody is paying for it. I feel anybody who was bullying Rachel is already paying for it right now. They’ll probably think about it their whole lives, though I hope they don’t.”
Rachel was not the stereotypical victim of bullies. She was pretty, popular and involved in school activities.
“She was in soccer, volleyball, basketball, dance class,” said Ehmke. “She was always engaged, right up until Saturday night. She was engaged in life. She had a comfortable life. I think there was some jealousy.”
School officials told Ehmke of some classmates harassing his daughter months ago. He thought it had stopped, because Rachel was no longer complaining about it. But the Friday before she died, there were more accusations of bullying, Ehmke said.
“I didn’t know that it really never stopped,” said Ehmke. “Her best friend said they were sneaking into the locker room to eat lunch to avoid it.”
Bullies had scrawled hurtful names on Rachel’s locker and put gum in her books, he said. Social media magnified the problem because it seemed she could never escape the taunts, not even on weekends.
“We tried to monitor her social media and limit it,” said Ehmke. “But you can’t control the Internet unless you lock her away 24 hours a day.”
When the harassment was brought to school officials the day before her death, Rachel was afraid getting her family and school involved would only make things worse. “She tried to handle it by herself.”
Social media has played a role since Rachel’s death, too, with angry students going after those thought to be the bullies. Ehmke has a plea to those students who would avenge Rachel’s death: Don’t. Out of respect for the family, stop.
“We are not pointing fingers at anybody,” said Ehmke. “We are not hoping for any ill will for any bullies. We cannot control how kids feel about this, but my wife and I want peace. Everyone needs to come together, even the bullies, because they also need help now, too.”
Ehmke said he has been wandering around the house, “opening and closing drawers and forgetting why. The kids have been troupers. That’s the kicker — no matter how hard it hurts, life has to go on,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ehmke begs young people: “Stop before you push the send button,” he said. “Think about what you are going to send. Do you really hate this person so bad, and why? These are kids, with lots of hormones and emotions. They can take that hurtful word to heart, and it can kill them.”
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