When Ellizabeth “Lizzy” Jacobson’s father died in 2016 of an overdose, she made her mother a plush blanket to comfort her.
The 12-year-old Janesville girl was a creative person, filling sketchbooks with her drawings and thinking of a career in graphic design, said her mother, Rebecka Coughlin.
Now, Coughlin is holding the blanket in which she and her daughter used to cuddle.
She can no longer hold her daughter. Ellizabeth took her own life Saturday.
Coughlin believes bullying by Ellizabeth’s peers over the past two years played a role in her death.
Her father’s death was bad enough, but the bullying started right afterward, Coughlin said.
“Kids would tell her he died because he didn’t want to be around her anymore,” Coughlin said.
She also was told she needed to die like her father did.
Her father’s death “was like this big open, sore wound, and they were just, like, throwing rocks into it,” Coughlin said.
“They all loved her before her dad died, and then she felt like her world just crumbled,” Coughlin said. “I don’t know if it’s easy to teach kids understanding on a subject like that, but they should be more sympathetic to it.”
Coughlin said her daughter was loving and could be joyful and also adamant about what she wanted.
Ellizabeth had decided she didn’t want to continue with counseling she had started after her father’s death, for example.
“She was a goof ball. She was definitely not quiet,” Coughlin said. “She had ADHD, and she was kind of in your face... Everybody was very aware she was in the room.”
Some days, she would wake up, play music and dance around her room.
When Coughlin’s best friend died two weeks ago, “she was there to hold me and let me cry on her shoulder and pat my back and tell me, ‘Everything will be OK, Mom,’” Coughlin said.
Ellizabeth started faking illness in fifth grade to avoid the hurt at school, Coughlin said.
“I tried to tell her, ‘Don’t listen. You are beautiful. You are smart. You are strong. You can do anything. If these kids are trying to tear you down, it’s because they’re insecure with themselves.’”
She entered sixth grade at Franklin Middle School this year, and the harassment got worse, Coughlin said.
Friends from Madison Elementary School drifted away, but one of those ex-friends invited her for a sleepover this spring, and she was excited to reconnect.
“It was all she could talk about for a couple of days because she missed her friend,” Coughlin said.
But a third girl joined the sleepover, and the two teased Ellizabeth and took her phone. Coughlin had to pick up her upset daughter that night.
In another recent incident, a boy pulled at her bra strap.
Coughlin and Coughlin’s mother complained to school officials, who said they would talk to the offenders.
Officials told them other students also reported Ellizabeth was being bullied, Coughlin said.
But it didn’t help, and Coughlin doesn’t understand why nothing could be done, she said.
The school district has a longstanding bullying policy that forbids it and requires staff members to report bullying they witness.
“The staff works hard to model respectful behavior and ensure that students treat each other politely and in a caring manner,” school district spokesman Patrick Gasper said in a statement. “Let’s be clear that we would certainly act if any bullying in school was reported and substantiated.
“We need the help of friends and family to extend our efforts beyond the school day/buildings,” the statement said.
Franklin Middle School on Tuesday issued a letter to parents and staff, saying Ellizabeth died unexpectedly.
“For those of you who knew Ellizabeth, we ask that you remember her as the kind-hearted young woman that she was. For those of you who did not know Ellizabeth, we ask that you respect our sadness and support us with your understanding,” the letter reads.
The district is providing staff to anyone who needs help dealing with the loss.
Unlike many modern tales of bullying, this one does not include social media, as far as Coughlin knows. Ellizabeth stayed away from the more popular social media.
Ellizabeth still had friends—misfits all—and on Thursday Ellizabeth told her mother, “I’m going to start helping people, Mom.”
She said she was taking her friends on walks during gym class and talking about how they could deal with their stress.
Coughlin said she was looking into online schools and hoping Ellizabeth could just finish the school year at Franklin. Now, she feels guilty she didn’t take her out of school sooner.
Coughlin is hoping for more than just a blanket to remember her daughter. She’s hoping good will come of her death, and some things already have.
Everywhere she goes, Coughlin is hearing expressions of sorrow and support, often from strangers, for her thoughts about ending bullying.
Coughlin heard from parents who visited Franklin on Tuesday, upset about what happened and not wanting it to happen to anyone else.
And she has heard from Lizzy’s friends, who are planning an anti-bullying float for the Labor Day parade.
“I’m so glad she won’t be dying in vain,” Coughlin said. “... And I know I’m going to do whatever I can to stand against this.
“I won’t let this happen again.”
More construction and rising construction costs led the city of Janesville to increase its borrowing for capital projects in 2018 to $21.9 million, about 38 percent higher than the average amount it borrowed annually from 2013 to 2017, according to city data.
The Janesville City Council agreed to the amount on May 14. It spent Tuesday’s meeting discussing more details about borrowing plans.
The May 14 action set a ceiling for 2018 borrowing, so on Tuesday the council could only reduce the $21.9 million figure or keep it as is.
Jens Jorgensen was the only council member to vote against borrowing $21.9 million. There were still ways to save money, and future generations would carry the burden of this debt, he said.
Council President Doug Marklein said the city was close to retiring past debt to ease that burden. He expected this year’s borrowing to be paid in full within 10 years.
The $21.9 million figure is twice the $10.9 million the council borrowed in 2013. From 2013 to 2017, Janesville borrowed an average of $15.9 million annually, peaking in 2016 at $19.3 million.
City Finance Director Max Gagin told The Gazette before Tuesday’s meeting that the higher borrowing total stemmed in part from an increase in construction across Janesville. Higher costs for building materials and inflation had also contributed, he said.
The city began its budgeting process last fall when it compiled its capital projects list for this year. Engineering staff spent the winter months developing project specifications and budget estimates, Gagin said.
In addition to the increased borrowing total, Janesville’s per-capita debt also increased to about $1,500 per person. In 2013, per-capita debt was just under $1,200, according to Gagin’s presentation Tuesday night.
But Gagin said Janesville’s debt as a percent of its equalized property value had decreased slightly thanks to rising property values in the city. Janesville ranked near the middle of the pack for this measure compared to 14 peer cities in Wisconsin.
The peer city analysis used 2016 data, and Gagin expected Janesville has since improved its standing because of increased property values.
Another part of this year’s higher borrowing is due to increased tax incremental financing spending. The vast majority of that $4.9 million portion is allocated to ARISE-related projects such as the Court Street conversion to two-way traffic and the Milwaukee Street bridge replacement.
Despite Jorgensen’s opposition, other council members thought the borrowing total was a job well done by city staff.
Rich Gruber called it “very prudent” and said much of the money was going toward infrastructure upgrades the city had postponed following the Great Recession.
Paul Williams said the $21.9 million would finance necessary projects for the city.
“It would be really nice if we didn’t have to borrow anything, if all the money was coming in and we could just write a check for everything,” he said. “I think it’s within reason, and it’s something we need to do. I don’t have any suggestions on what (projects) to pull.”
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Janesville Parker boys golf coach Sam Van Galder predicted before the season started that his talented team would take advantage of playing at the Janesville Country Club and win the sectional meet, and the Vikings backed up their first-year coach’s premonition Tuesday. Senior Matt Zimmerman fired a 3-over-par 75 to lead the Vikings to the WIAA Division 1 Parker Sectional team title. Runner-up Lake Geneva Badger also qualified for the state meet at University Ridge in Madison.