In Honor of Alexa

Girl-on-girl bullying is a real, serious, heartbreaking, traumatic and yet completely preventable occurrence that takes place in many, if not all, schools across the country.

But it doesn't end at school. We live in a technocentric culture that revolves around social media and texting. And it's no surprise that bullying over social media and text messaging is typically worse, because hey, it's easier to be cruel over a keyboard than to someone's face. 

The statistics don't lie: 89% of girls reported being bullied either online or at school. Whether it's physical fighting, rumors, threats, secrets, etc... there are countless girls who are suffering. That's why shortly after our launch, we released the "Nice Girls" collection ('Nice Girls' , 'Be Nice' , 'Let's Be Friends' , 'I Care') to encourage girls to embrace kindness and shy away from bullying, judgement and comparisons.

And that brings us to Alexa.

She is at the heart of our "Nice Girls" campaign and we are extremely honored to share her story. Alexa Berman is from my hometown in Connecticut and was a victim of girl-on-girl bullying. Ultimately, she took her own life at the young age of 14. Although I did not know Alexa personally, I knew her brothers and her family. It was something that always weighed heavy on my heart. I decided to reach out to her mother, Debbie, to see if she'd share her story to raise awareness for anti-bullying.

Thank you for sharing your story, Debbie. You are making a difference in so many lives.


Every Ella: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your daughter Alexa.

Debbie: Alexa was a lovely child. She had a beautiful soul and saw the good in people. She was very bright, curious and loved learning. She was a teacher’s dream student.  Alexa had a cheerful personality and a unique sense of style.

Alexa was a special addition to our family. We adopted her from a Russian orphanage when she was 3-1/2 years old. She joined 2 brothers, Jeremy and Brett, who were 13 and 9 respectively at that time. She made a smooth addition to our family, learned to speak English within four months time, and was warm and affectionate.

I am a teacher and just retired from 20 years of teaching in our local elementary school as a reading and special education teacher. I have been married for 37 years to my husband, Alan, who is an optometrist and owns Ridgefield Family Eyecare in Ridgefield, CT. I love spending time with my family. We all love being at the beach, particularly on Block Island, where we spent many of our family vacations with Alexa.

What was Alexa like? (hobbies, interests, personality):

Alexa was a very sweet, sensitive girl with a lot of compassion for others.

She had a myriad of interests, particularly those of a creative and artistic nature. She was a voracious reader and a gifted writer. She loved music, performing in plays, art, knitting and baking. Alexa also had a natural affinity for animals. She had a passion for dance. Bike riding, swimming and photography were activities she enjoyed. She seemed to possess a talent for almost every hobby she tried or interest she had. (She made one incredible banana bread with a secret ingredient!)

Alexa was more mature than most girls her age. While she loved spending time with friends, she didn’t have a need for lots of friends. She wanted the relationships with the friends she had to be significant. Alexa had a knack for making others feel special. She did not have patience for gossip or get pleasure from making others feel bad.

Considering her background and life in her early years, it amazed us how exceptionally bright she was. Her vocabulary was astounding. The boys had this running joke going that she came to this country not speaking one word of English and surpassed both of them academically, when they were born here with English as their primary language. She was the only one of the three that was in the Humanities Program in middle school. They said that she would probably get into a top college or university with a scholarship to boot.

What a loss that Alexa never got to fulfill her potential.  She had so much to give this world.

When did she start getting bullied?

Alexa was seen as different from many of her peers. She never had a lot friends, but she did have friends, several that she had and was close to for a number of years. There were others who she would get close to, but for unknown reasons, would just stop being friends with her at some point. The real bullying began at the beginning of 8th grade. It was directly targeted and included the girl she was closest to and one she considered her best friend.

(I’ll use initials to make the scenario less confusing)

In 7th grade a new girl, who lived around the corner from us, moved into town. Alexa befriended this girl, K. She introduced her to her best friend, L. Alexa and L were also friendly with another girl, S. They didn’t do things as a group often. Alexa would spend time with each individually, but the most with L, who came with us on our summer vacation to Block Island at the end of 7th grade.

At the start of 8th grade, K decided that she was going to make L her best friend and there would be no room in this new dynamic for Alexa. They began to exclude her from all conversations and activities they were involved in. Alexa would sit at the same table in the cafeteria with them, but they would ignore her. The two of them would discuss what they did together over the weekend. They would get up to go outside to recess and not invite her to join them. Alexa did tell me this. 

Things began to escalate as the year progressed. These girls spent the better part of the year acting cruelly toward Alexa. They treated her as if she didn’t exist by talking around her and excluding her from all of the activities they participated in. They rubbed her face in the fun they had by posting photos of themselves on-line.

Here is one example to just give you an idea of how their behavior affected Alexa:

Alexa had gone trick-treating with L for several years. She bought her costume and repeatedly asked L what the plans would be for this year, but she wouldn’t answer her. Finally, she said she was going with K. (These 2 girls had the audacity to show up at our housetrick-or-treating that evening!) Numerous times Alexa had told me that she didn’t understand what was going on because she hadn’t done anything. Had she done something, she might have been able to fix it. 

Was the bullying in school, social media or both?

The bullying was done both at school and on social media. This was before Facebook, but IMing was big. L and K would send Alexa messages condemning her for her behavior. Early in December, they got on-line together, but pretended to be each other part of the time, unbeknownst to Alexa, of course. Alexa had asked L why the 2 of them couldn’t still be friends even if L was friends with K. She also asked L if she thought K could be mean. Since K was now privy to this, she went off making remarks about Alexa being a bad person. L went into a long diatribe about how Alexa needed to change her behavior if she expected to be let back into her good graces. Alexa was basically trapped by them and the computer was used as a weapon. She didn’t do anything wrong, so there was nothing she could or should change.

During this same incident, L and K sent a message to S encouraging her to ‘dump’ Alexa. S sent a message to Alexa and told her that if L and K were no longer friends of hers, neither was she. Alexa walked out of the study, threw her arms in the air and said, “Well I guess I have no friends.” She put her head on my shoulder and said, “I feel like swallowing a bottle of pills.”

Did she open up to you or anyone about the problems she was having or how she felt?

My husband and I were aware of the bullying, however, we actually did not find out the full extent of it until after she had passed away. Even 2 years afterwards, we were told of an incident that we didn’t know about. While we knew that she was extremely distressed over the situation, she still functioned well academically and continued in all the activities she loved. She had some other friends that she did things with, but not on any regular basis. On the surface, she was able to hide the depth of her sadness.

I should note, that Alexa began to show signs of depression in 7th grade. We took her to an outside therapist who diagnosed her with clinical depression and recommended that she go on medication in addition to receiving counseling. She also began to see a psychiatrist for the medication. Between these two therapies, Alexa was making progress that year. Her friend L, as a matter of fact, was extremely supportive to her. The following year, she opened up to the therapist about the bullying in 8th grade. There was a lot of discussion regarding the loss of her friendship with L. The therapist also invited Alexa to join a teen support group that was formed in her practice with other girls who were having similar experiences and issues.

**It’s important to note that once Alexa began counseling we learned that she suffered from Attachment Disorder due to her adoption. It was not apparent, however, until she hit puberty and began to experience the severing of relationships. She was not able to heal from it the way the average child would. Since she was with her birth mother until she was 18 months old, and then in 3 different orphanages until we adopted her, she had these attachment issues. She didn’t recall them, but the therapist said those experiences left their mark and were a big part of Alexa’s inability to deal with the loss of her best friend.

Did you or Alexa ever seek help from the school?

Initially I did not. Having previously experienced what I felt was the mishandling of Issues that my younger son had at WMS, I didn’t feel comfortable with them handling this situation. We had sought the help from the outside therapist that we knew and was very skilled.

Later, the guidance counselor began to work with Alexa. They actually developed a special bond, as he was born in Russia. As the bullying escalated between Alexa and the girls, he had them come to his office on a weekly basis to see if they could come to an understanding and possibly repair the relationships. (This was with Alexa, L and S, not K, the ringleader.) After meeting for many months, L & S no longer wanted to meet. Alexa told me that she knew the reason was “Because they hate me.”

I should mention, that even though I was a teacher in the school district, I was not aware of the bullying laws that were mandated by the state at the time. I did not know that if a student was bullied off of school grounds, but it affected them at school, it was considered to be a school related issue. It never dawned on me that I could bring the situation up about the outside cyber-bullying. In addition to this, Alexa’s I had discussed speaking to the parents of L & S.  The therapist said that it would be even worse for Alexa. This is one of the things that needs to change. Children are so afraid of repercussions that many of them will not do anything to defend themselves.

Alexa decided to take her own life. How old was she?

Alexa was 14 years old when she took her life. She did this 3 days before she was to begin high school and it was her father’s birthday.

We think it was significant that Alexa did this right before she was to start HS. As she got older, she had difficulty adapting to new situations. Again, all part of the attachment issues. We had given her the option of attending another HS. We looked into Danbury HS for her. It was her decision to go to BHS. She made this decision in the spring of her 8th grade year when she really seemed to be healing from the pain that had been inflected upon her by the girls. She had begun to get anxious a few weeks prior to school beginning. The therapist had made a plan with her to lessen her anxiety, but I think she just couldn’t handle the thought of going through another year like she had in 8th grade.

It is very important to note that the morning of the day she died, she was on-line chatting with L. They were having this casual conversation about what they were going to do that day. L said that she’d be dying her hair and going to lacrosse practice. Alexa literally told her, “I’m going to hang myself.”  L did try to dissuade her on-line, but she did nothing that would have been appropriate with that information after she got off of the computer.

It is my belief that Alexa was testing L. She wanted to see if she would actually ‘save’ her. Alexa wanted to repair the relationship before she went back to school.

We can't imagine that amount of pain you must have felt. What has motivated you to keep going despite the heartache?

You always hear that losing a child is the worst thing that can ever happen to a person and my husband and I can attest to the fact that it truly is. The pain and grieving process is doubled when you lose a child to suicide. It is easier to reconcile an illness or even a tragic accident. It is unfathomable to come to terms with a child choosing to end their life, especially one so young who had their whole life ahead of them.

My husband and I both felt, right after this happened, that it was important to do whatever we could to raise awareness about suicide, and particularly about bullying, in order to spare another family from the pain that our family and Alexa had suffered. We truly felt that if we could save 1 child, Alexa’s death would not have been in vain.

What advice would you give to girls being bullied?

Girls must know that no one has the right to mistreat them physically or emotionally. They cannot dismiss it or be afraid to tell a trusted adult for fear of retaliation. Every state has anti-bullying legislation and every school district must abide by it (many don’t, but they’re not called to task on it, either).

It is really important that girls accept themselves for who they are and not judge themselves through other girls’ eyes/standards. It is really hard for pre-teens and teens to do this. They all want to be accepted, but this is where their self-esteem erodes. Those who are more sensitive may become depressed which can lead them to hurt themselves, entertain thoughts of suicide, or actually carry out a suicide.

I think that girls who are bullied and those who bully would benefit from hearing stories from the parents and others who had a relationship with girls who took their lives due to bullying. This would need to be done with trained personnel Included, but a lasting impact would be made, and hopefully deter future bullying and prevent possible suicides.

What advice would you give to the parents of girls being bullied?

Parents need to listen carefully to their daughters. It’s important that they make sure to not over react or question them too much, making it uncomfortable for their daughter to open-up. Parents and the girls need to know that there is a distinction between bullying and ‘mean spirited’ behavior. Bullying occurs repeatedly over time and often includes more than just one instigator. I interpret it as behavior that ‘eats away at the victim’s soul.’

Make sure your daughter knows that she can come to you and talk about anything. Her thoughts and feelings are safe with you. Parents must seek help if there is any issue that causes great concern.

Check daughters’ electronic activity. We did not do this diligently, as Alexa was so trustworthy, but she was being humiliated on-line and we didn’t know until things got out of hand. Typically, kids will put messages out in ‘cyber-world’ that allude to depressive thinking, thoughts of harming themselves or others, so it’s important to be aware and have the ability to get this information. We found out after Alexa passed away that she had been blogging on a bizarre website about taking her life. She was weighing how she felt about the idea. She felt 60% in favor of doing it vs 40% for not. She received about 14 hits on this site and not one person thought to contact us after reading this.

Depending on the situation, who is doing the bullying, consider speaking to the parents of the bullies. Typically we’re dissuaded from doing this. Even Alexa’s counselor said it would be worse for her, however, looking back, how much worse could it have been? Now, we knew the parents of these girls. While you can’t force a friendship, I think you could at least make the attempt to put an end to the cruelty.

Volunteer Work/Charities/Anti-Bullying Movements:

I am most proud of the role that my husband and I played in the strengthening of CT’s bullying legislation. Through a connection we had to some of the legislators who crafted the bill, my husband and I were invited to look over the initial draft and make suggestions. At that meeting, we were asked if we would be willing to testify on behalf of the legislation in front of the education committee. My husband was not available, but I testified. We were invited to a ceremonial signing of the bill by Governor Malloy in August of 2012. Many of the legislators who wrote the bill were at this signing. One of them approached us and told us that my testimony made such an impact on the committee that the bill passed quickly without the wrangling that was anticipated.

We have participated in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) fundraising walks locally and in several of the nationwide walks. The nationwide walks are called, Out of the Darkness. They are held once a year in June. They are held in 2 cities, one on each coast. Each walk is about 18 miles. You begin at about 7:00 PM and walk all through the night until the sun comes up, thus the name. Each participant must raise $1,000 to walk. The donations fund research and programming on educating and raising awareness about suicide. Thousands of people who are survivors of suicide loss come together and share their stories as they walk.

I have been asked to be the keynote speaker at various programming events for organizations including the Danbury Women’s Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the Ridgefield Playhouse, and the National Council of Jewish Women, Danbury Section.

My husband and I are on the board of the organization called Brookfield Cares. This group was formed several years ago by combining The Brookfield Substance Abuse Coalition and the Brookfield Coalition for Suicide Awareness, Inc. This organization creates and sponsors events in the community that educate and raise awareness about various mental health issues which include suicide and bullying.

I have written several articles for the local newspaper about bullying issues. I have also been interviewed for numerous publications locally. My husband and I participated in an article for People Magazine a number of years ago and I was also interviewed for a student publication in NJ called the Legal Eagle in their Special Anti-Bullying Edition.

I have reached out to Sandy Hook Promise to work with them on several initiatives they developed to combat social exclusion. They developed a program called Say Something which teaches kids how to respond when they see or hear a comment or remark made by another that mentions hurting themselves or others.