Remembering Jessica Laney
By Matt Reinig | Hernando TodaySPRING HILL - You could almost feel the sense of loss inside Spring Hill Calvary Church of the Nazarene on Thursday evening, where more people had amassed for a candlelight vigil than Fivay High School student Jessica Laney realized had cared.
Published: December 15, 2012
Published: December 15, 2012
After taking her life this week, about 300 friends, family, co-workers, teachers and peers organized and attended a forum to grieve a loss that many described as sudden and difficult to accept.
"She was so happy it was impossible to know she was down," said Bianca France, a soccer teammate of Laney's at Fivay. "No one knows exactly why she did it."
Many who attended her vigil described Laney not as an open book, and others knew her as someone with an extraordinary story that ended before it could be shared. So for several hours, dozens who knew Laney came and went from the microphone stand on the church altar, praising the young woman they knew who now lives in their memories.
"Even though this was a Pasco County thing, I think, what if this was one of our kids, a child at one of our Hernando County schools?" said Lt. Michael Burzumato, an administrative support commander with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office who attended Laney's vigil. "I don't care if these are Pasco kids, I'll be there for them. There's no Pasco-Hernando boundary about that."
Burzumato said there are many support outlets within the Hernando County School District — teachers, guidance counselors, resource officers, principals, social workers and anonymous bullying forms available from Department of Student Services that students can file and submit — support outlets are not the problem.
"The hard part is getting these kids to actually open up and talk to them," Burzumato said. "These kids, they hold it all inside like a volcano."
"It doesn't matter how they're feeling — just come talk to us."
As much as Laney's unwillingness to speak with others was a topic of focus Thursday, so was the often unfiltered willingness of what others would speak to her. It was part of the reason why those in attendance Thursday fastened purple ribbons to their clothes, with words like "bullying" scribbled across the threads, and why students at the two high schools Laney attended — Hudson and Fivay — wore purple and pink this week.
One especially cerebral view summarized Thursday what many seemed compelled to say, but whose pain wouldn't allow them to with the same acuity: "The whole bullying thing needs to stop."
Summer Howlett, the mother of a friend of Laney's, said she read the anonymous posts written on a social media website prior to Laney's death after hearing the rumors. They said things like: Just go ahead and do it. Just kill yourself already. Just do it already. You won't have to worry anymore. Just go ahead and kill yourself.
"That's pretty much accurate — that's not verbatim — but that's pretty much what it said," she said. "There's no questioning what it said."
Celia Vargas is one of the waitresses who worked with Laney and attended her vigil. All the other waitresses were there too, she said.
"To know her, it makes me angry about a person that just was not what they said she was," Vargas said in regards to the anonymous posts. "She just got her car. She was a good student, and she was beautiful. She was a beautiful person."
Burzumato said he never knew Laney, but he knew enough about her to know how false the anonymous posts were.
"It's just tragic," Burzumato said. "I heard a rumor that she was online, and they were calling her fat and ugly and so forth. Well, I've seen a picture of this girl, and she's beautiful."
And a person who does not have inner beauty does not have an attendance exceeding 300 at their vigil, either.
"She's still going to be able to teach that lesson to these other kids," Burzumato said. "Stop bullying, be nice to the people around you, and you'll invest in a friend for life. Be nice to the people who will cry at your funeral."
The impact Laney had on those around her, speakers said, was profound to the point that others could confide in her what they couldn't confide in anyone else: They could confide in Laney what their best friends didn't even know.
"One of my kids walked in and saw me smiling and said, 'You don't know,'" said Laney's freshman teacher at Hudson High School, Selena Turcios. "Almost every student had a story about (Laney) helping somebody. They weren't the kids that all the kids were friends with. They were the ones that they said were annoying, and Jessica would say, 'No, they're not. Here, come sit with me.'"
The anonymous posts were recently removed from the social media site, Howlett said, and teachers and parents who spoke at Laney's vigil stressed they had no desire to see that those who wrote the posts be pursued and jailed, or that social media was by any means the cause of Laney's death. Rather, there were only recommendations that those who did write the posts seek counseling, be kind to themselves and to one other, understand that nobody is perfect and take Laney's story as a lesson in human fragility.
"When I was growing up, and you were being bullied, home was a place you could go to get away from that," said Susanne Barnason, whose daughter played soccer with Laney for the Lady Strikers. "Parents, you better make peace with this now, because the computer is not going to leave. Those who say it will are the same naysayers who said that 8-tracks wouldn't go away. Kids, you're old enough to know that just because your name isn't attached to it, doesn't mean you can say it. If you can't tell your mother it, if you can't say it to your father — don't say it."
"You don't know by looking at somebody what's inside, and how broken they are," Barnason added. "And we're all broken in some way."