Teen Hockey Player’s Bullying Went Unchecked Before Her Suicide, Parents Say

Courtesy of the Brown family

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McKenna Brown died by suicide in August during what should have been a joyful period for her family. It was “the day before her brother’s 22nd birthday, three days before she was supposed to start her senior year, two weeks before our 25th wedding anniversary, and one month before her 17th birthday,” her father, Hunter, told The Daily Beast.

Instead, following a relentless bullying campaign, the 16-year-old succumbed to a “tsunami-type feeling” that she couldn’t see through, her mother, Cheryl, said.

Three players in McKenna’s hockey league have now reportedly been suspended for their role in the alleged bullying. The Browns expressed their gratitude to the league, but said officials near their home in Pinellas County, Florida, could have done more to help McKenna after earlier cases of mistreatment.

The turbulence in her life started around the beginning of high school, they said, when McKenna sent a sexually explicit photo to a boy in another state. A former friend of hers with whom she had a falling out obtained a copy of the picture and distributed it, the Browns said. Almost immediately, McKenna faced brutal teasing and harassment.

The Browns weren’t able to pursue legal action, they said, because they were told that filing charges over the distribution of child pornography might also incriminate McKenna for distributing the same content—even though it had been a picture of herself.

Around the same time, the Browns said, McKenna was sexually assaulted by an older teenager while at a sleepover. “That piece we didn’t know until two nights before she passed away,” Cheryl said.

“Her first semester of freshman school kind of unraveled pretty quickly,” Hunter recalled. McKenna’s parents found her a tutor, psychiatrist, and therapist, and managed to “put her back together mentally and emotionally.”



<div class="inline-image__caption">
<p>McKenna Brown with her mother, Cheryl.  </p>
</div>
<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of the Brown family</div>
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McKenna Brown with her mother, Cheryl.

Courtesy of the Brown family

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McKenna Brown with her mother, Cheryl.

Courtesy of the Brown family

“She went back to school for a second semester of grade nine, to focus on athletics and academics and put the past behind her. She got her grades all up to straight A’s,” Hunter said.

Still, those incidents wounded McKenna, who “was always a quirky, goofy, little impulsive kid,” he added. “People would just tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘You know, I don’t know what you did to raise that kid, but she’s incredible. You guys did a great job.’”

McKenna channeled some of her energy into hockey, a sport she took up after her older brother. During middle school, she had declared an interest in playing goalie, but the equipment was exorbitantly expensive.

“I actually made her sign a contract,” Hunter recounted; he and Cheryl would pay for the equipment, but McKenna had to commit to sticking with the sport for at least three or four years. “It never came back up,” he said. “She basically doubled that timeline.” (She also played varsity flag football.)

Hockey consumed a large amount of McKenna’s time. Many of the games required out-of-state travel, which meant trips with other girls and their families. “I’m a fireman. Cheryl works. We have [a daughter] who has special needs. So we can’t just leave her here with any babysitter,” Hunter explained of the bonds McKenna formed with other players.

But the sport ultimately became the epicenter of another torrent of abuse, her parents said.

The most recent conflict began as a normal teenage dispute: a teammate’s ex-boyfriend expressed interest in McKenna, and they started to flirt. The trivial fling didn’t sit well with some of the other girls, the Browns said. The teenagers accused her of breaking the “girl code,” and they allegedly began a coordinated effort to have her socially exiled. The Browns weren’t fully aware of what was happening.

In August, Cheryl and McKenna were watching a movie. McKenna declared that she was going upstairs to shower and clean her room. She might come back down, she said, unless she became too tired, in which case she would just go to sleep.



<div class="inline-image__caption">
<p>The 16-year-old with her father, Hunter.  </p>
</div>
<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of the Brown family</div>
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The 16-year-old with her father, Hunter.

Courtesy of the Brown family

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The 16-year-old with her father, Hunter.

Courtesy of the Brown family

The next morning, Hunter said, he returned from the fire station and spent several minutes talking with Cheryl about McKenna’s social struggles. Cheryl then prepared to go to church with McKenna and her brother. She went upstairs, Hunter recalled, “and then I just heard this scream.”

“I found her face down in her room,” Cheryl said. “She can literally sleep anywhere. And when I first walked in the room… it didn’t even occur to me that she was gone. I thought she was sleeping on the ground, as uncomfortable as it looked. I went over to her to try and turn her over, and she was cold and stiff.”

After McKenna’s death, the Browns said, several teammates and their families came forward with stories and evidence about the bullying. “The girls were…appealed. The families were called,” Cheryl said.

They compiled evidence of the behavior, but it doesn’t appear the mistreatment violated the law. “Criminally, there will be no accountability,” Hunter said.

Cheryl said McKenna’s passing crystallizes the need to change cyberbullying laws, given social media’s immense power over the lives of children and teenagers.

“I would like there to be some accountability and acknowledgment to what happens,” she said. For the Browns, the push for awareness has offered an additional sense of purpose.

“She’s not here, but she’s still helping people,” Cheryl said. “That’s our mission: To help her continue to help others.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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