The mother and aunt of a 12-year-old Janesville girl who recently committed suicide made impassioned pleas for an anti-bullying ordinance at Monday’s city council meeting.
Ellizabeth Jacobson’s death May 26 might not be Janesville’s first child suicide, but with the city’s help, hers could be the last, Jacobson’s mother, Rebecka Coughlin, said during the public comment period.
Her remarks left council President Doug Marklein and many in the audience teary-eyed as she gave details of her daughter’s trauma and death.
Whether the city enacts an anti-bullying ordinance is still uncertain. Monday’s agenda contained no discussion item on that topic.
Marklein said he has done a little research online about a possible ordinance, but he has yet to contact other Wisconsin cities with similar policies, such as Shawano and Monona.
Ashley Jacobson, Ellizabeth’s aunt, criticized Marklein during public comment for something he said in a June 3 email response to Angie Babcock, leader of local anti-bullying group Be a Rooney.
“Why does our own president city councilman insensitively refer to my niece’s suicide as ‘It’s not our first nor will it be our last?’” Jacobson said. “It’s heartbreaking that a man heading our city would refer to her and our other children as if they are disposable. Our children are not disposable, Mr. Marklein.”
Babcock shared that email exchange with The Gazette last week. She and several others outside the family also spoke for the ordinance Monday.
In the same email thread, Marklein called a city anti-bullying policy a “feel-good ordinance” and questioned if it could effectively prevent bullying.
Babcock’s original email contained no reference to potential punishment for bullies. She didn’t reply to Marklein’s response, so he couldn’t get more information about what the ordinance might look like, he told The Gazette last week.
Monday, Jacobson said the overdue and much-needed ordinance would work if it had specific penalties for bullies and their families, such as fines or community service. She brought a framed photo of her niece to the lectern.
If Janesville does decide to create an ordinance, it would realistically take two or three months to get enacted. It would take time to develop an effective policy, review its legality and gain necessary council approval, Marklein said.
That amount of time would be necessary to ensure it’s more than a feel-good resolution, he said.
“We need to look at what, if anything, can the city do that would meet the concerns that we heard here this evening,” he said after the meeting. “As a parent, I understand completely what they were going through. I don’t think anybody who had any kids or anybody even alive would not be moved by their stories. It was a very emotional evening.”
Earlier in the night, Coughlin described the moments when she found her daughter’s body and a note that read, “I love you Mom, and I just want you to be happy.”
Other students struggling with bullying or contemplating suicide have reached out to her on Facebook. Hearing their stories makes it clear Janesville needs to do something to address bad behavior, she said.
“No kid should be made to feel this way, and we need to change it,” Coughlin said. “Like my sister-in-law said, she might not be the first, but we’re hoping she’s the last.
“And if this is where it starts, this is where we have to do it.”