After Teen’s Suicide, a New Jersey Community Grapples With Bullying

Fourteen-year-old Adriana Kuch told her father that she could not bear the humiliation after she was attacked by another girl inside her New Jersey high school and a clip of the assault was posted to TikTok.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to be that girl who gets beat up on video and made fun of,’” Adriana’s father, Michael Kuch, recalled his daughter saying as they sat in the kitchen of their home in Bayville.

“Can you imagine walking through the school with her face beat in?” he asked.

The day after the Feb. 1 assault, Adriana retreated to her room at about 10 p.m. and took her own life during the night, he said.

The attack, which her father has accused the school district of mishandling, and Adriana’s suicide have reverberated through Ocean County communities near the Jersey Shore and across the state. Public grieving and outrage have led officials to grapple anew with the prevalence of bullying in schools, how it affects children and the response — or lack of one — by administrators.

In recent days, students have protested in front of Adriana’s high school, the superintendent of the Central Regional School District has resigned and four girls have been criminally charged in connection with the assault.

“There is obviously a great deal of rightful anguish and emotion with Adriana’s passing, from her family, friends and within our community at large,” said Carmen Amato, the mayor of Berkeley Township, in an email.

School board members did not respond to requests for comment, and the voice mailbox at the superintendent’s office was full. In a message on its website, the district said it had contacted the state Education Department and would undergo an independent assessment of its anti-bullying policies to ensure student safety. “We are all praying for the family and loved ones and our entire community,” the message said.

It isn’t clear what the motive was for the attack, which occurred on a Wednesday just before 11 a.m., but a video recording of the incident shows it apparently had been planned. In the video, Adriana, with long, light brown hair, walks down a school hallway along a bank of lockers, smiling and chatting with a male friend. Another girl comes up from behind and hits Adriana in the face with what appears to be a water bottle.

As Adriana falls to the ground, her friend pushes the attacker away. But another student seems to intervene to hold him back, and the girl continues to pummel Adriana until a staff member rushes over and stops the attack.

Mr. Kuch said Adriana, his youngest child, was one of nine in a blended family with his wife, Sarah. He and others said that Adriana had been a happy teenager who loved animals, spent time with the younger triplets of a neighbor across the street and rescued one of them from a pool.

Tips for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens

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Are you concerned for your teen? If you worry that your teen might be experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, there are a few things you can do to help. Dr. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suggests these steps:

Look for changes. Notice shifts in sleeping and eating habits in your teen, as well as any issues he or she might be having at school, such as slipping grades. Watch for angry outbursts, mood swings and a loss of interest in activities they used to love. Stay attuned to their social media posts as well.

Keep the lines of communication open. If you notice something unusual, start a conversation. But your child might not want to talk. In that case, offer him or her help in finding a trusted person to share their struggles with instead.

Seek out professional support. A child who expresses suicidal thoughts may benefit from a mental health evaluation and treatment. You can start by speaking with your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional.

In an emergency: If you have immediate concern for your child’s safety, do not leave him or her alone. Call a suicide prevention lifeline. Lock up any potentially lethal objects. Children who are actively trying to harm themselves should be taken to the closest emergency room.

Resources If you’re worried about someone in your life and don’t know how to help, these resources can offer guidance:1. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Text or call 988 2. The Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741741 3. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

“My daughter is strong,” he said. “She loved life. I can’t believe they broke her.”

Most children who are bullied do not take their own lives. And experts say the factors that lead to suicide are complicated and often cannot be traced to any single cause.

But there is a strong correlation between bullying and suicidal thoughts as well as attempts, several studies have shown.

“Bullying is a violent act, and the person who is bullied is victimized,” said Dr. Jeanne Craft, the past president of New Jersey’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Some children have the resilience to respond to that with strength, and some need help. And if they don’t get help, it can have devastating consequences, including suicide.”

A study published in 2022 found that adolescents who experienced cyberbullying were more than four times as likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts as those who did not. When the researchers adjusted for other factors such as family conflict, racial discrimination, parental monitoring and support at school, the association between cyberbullying and suicidal behavior was not as strong, but still remained significant.

“We need to help kids be able to process and share with others that they are going through that experience,” said Michael A. Lindsey, dean of the New York University Silver School of Social Work, who studies child and adolescent mental health. “It can really render someone incredibly vulnerable to self-harm.”

According to new data released on Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021, double the rate of boys, and one in three girls seriously considered attempting suicide. The rates of sadness were the highest reported in a decade.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults in the United States.

On Monday, two top officials in the administration of New Jersey Gov. Philip D. Murphy said in a statement that they remained committed, amid a rise in suicides among 10- to 24-year-olds documented by the C.D.C. from 2018 to 2021, to providing the resources needed to support young people and prevent further loss of life.

Placing more behavioral health professionals in schools, providing adolescents with strategies to cope with relationship challenges, monitoring time spent on social media and teaching children to recognize symptoms of suicidal behavior in themselves and others can help them thrive, the experts said.

In Bayville and the surrounding Jersey Shore communities to the west of Barnegat Bay, Adriana’s death has opened the wounds of past bullying incidents and revealed what some parents say is a culture of tolerance among school officials.

In a Facebook post last week, another parent, Racheal O’Dea, said her daughter had been attacked by other girls a year ago at the same high school that Adriana attended, and a video of that incident was posted online by one of the attackers. Even though her daughter reported earlier threats to administrators, Ms. O’Dea said on Facebook and in a lawsuit now pending in state court, they took no action.

“The only thing Central Regional does is label these events as ‘hallway disturbances’ and give everyone suspensions, so it does not reach the threshold of needing to involve the police and reports aren’t made,” Ms. O’Dea wrote.

The school district has denied the O’Dea family’s complaints of negligence, infliction of emotional distress and other harm.

Mr. Kuch said he is exploring a lawsuit as well. After the attack, he said, the school had not been forthcoming.

“They told me nothing, and then they said they will handle the investigation internally,” Mr. Kuch said. “It’s not their policy to contact the police and file a report.”

He said he took his daughter to the Berkeley Township Police on his own immediately after the attack.

Police referred questions to the Ocean County prosecutor, Bradley Billhimer, who said that the school had told an officer stationed there about the attack and that police had opened an investigation after Mr. Kuch’s visit.

In the week that followed, the district superintendent, Triantafillos Parlapanides, angered community members with a series of comments widely perceived as insensitive. Outside a protest against bullying at Adriana’s high school, he told News12 New Jersey that it was up to parents to press charges.

“We’re not going to double whammy a kid where they’re suspended and then police charges as well,” Mr. Parlapanides said. He then sent home a letter saying that because the protest interfered with learning and created traffic, no more rallies would be permitted without approval.

And in emails cited in a Daily Mail article, the superintendent appeared to shift blame toward Adriana and her father. A day after the article appeared, he resigned. Mr. Parlapanides could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Billhimer, the Ocean County prosecutor, announced at the end of last week that four students had been charged as juveniles: one with aggravated assault, two with conspiracy to commit aggravated assault and one with harassment.

On TikTok, where the video of the attack first circulated, other teenagers have posted videos honoring Adriana to a new channel: @justice4age — Justice for Adriana Kuch.

For additional suicide prevention resources in the United States, go to Go here for resources outside the United States.

Jack Begg and Susan C. Beachy contributed research. Tracey Tully contributed reporting.

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