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.”