Student Well-Being

Kerby Guerra, 1985-1999

By Jessica Portner — April 12, 2000 11 min read
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The day Kerby Casey Guerra killed herself, the 13-year-old wore a perfect mask of happiness.

A day earlier, Kerby’s mother had treated her to a manicure at a fashionable Colorado Springs salon, and Kerby seemed elated. The 8th grader was transferring from a school she hated, and things finally were starting to look up. That evening, March 19, 1999, the Guerras took Kerby’s sister Kristy Hignite out to celebrate her 30th birthday, and asked Kerby to baby-sit her niece and nephew, something the responsible girl had done dozens of times before.

At 9:30 p.m., Ms. Hignite called to check in. Kerby told her that the children were fine and that she planned to watch the movie “Mulan” and go to sleep.

But after tucking 5-year-old Elizabeth and 7-year-old Jeremy into their beds upstairs, Kerby ransacked the house to find a key to the cabinet where Ms. Hignite’s husband, an Army officer stationed in South Korea, kept a Winchester rifle and ammunition. She unplugged the phone, turned the radio on full blast, then placed her mouth over the rifle’s barrel and fired.

When her parents and sister returned at 1:15 a.m. after going on to a club after dinner, her sister was the first to stumble onto the gruesome scene. “Kerby’s face was gone. Her brains were out of her head on the kitchen floor. There was blood everywhere,” Ms. Hignite said recently. “I wanted to pick her up and put her back together,” Kerby’s mother, Donna Guerra, said.

Next to Kerby’s body was a blood-soaked suicide note that read: “I’m sorry I lied. I love you.” In another room, she’d left presents for her niece and nephew: drawings of animals with wings.

“We always thought Kerby was a big, tough girl,” Ms. Hignite said. “Really, she was sad and scared inside.”

The Guerras’ tidy house, on a quiet street in Colorado Springs, is like an advertisement for an antiques magazine, with cuckoo clocks, hand-carved wooden ornaments, and a needlework picture on the wall that reads: “Happy Home.” But the dozens of portraits of the brown-haired girl that adorn the house are the most ubiquitous decoration.

A year after her death, Kerby’s upstairs bedroom is much as she left it, a porthole into the preoccupations of a girl on the cusp of adolescence. Elaborate porcelain dolls perch on high ledges. On the bookshelves are such classics as Little Women and Jane Eyre. There’s a Children’s Illustrated Bible, a book on how to ask about sex, and several about angels. Kerby’s many pets—she had turtles, frogs, hamsters—once competed for space here with her impressive teddy bear collection.

Kerby’s sister Stacy Barrington, 27, describes her as “proper” compared with most of her peers. “She didn’t drink beer or smoke. She’d get disgusted if someone would even say a curse word,” Ms. Barrington said. The Guerras kept strict control over Kerby’s media intake, monitoring her Web-surfing and banning all R- rated films.

After Larry Guerra, a 39-year-old insurance-claims adjuster, married Donna, 47, they moved from another part of Colorado Springs with their family (Ms. Guerra has three children from a previous marriage) to this community because they appreciated its wholesomeness. The headlines in the local community newspaper paint a picture of a quiet life, with stories headlined “Clean Sidewalk Reminders” and “Holiday Food Safety Tips.”

But the Guerras were drawn here mostly because they had heard the schools were top- notch. The newly constructed Eagleview Middle School, nestled in the salmon- colored foothills of the Rocky Mountains and flanked by affluent homes, is the jewel of School District 20, which encompasses Colorado Springs.

When she started 6th grade, Kerby landed a spot in the band, playing clarinet, and was enjoying composing poems in English class. Soon, though, school became intolerable.

Plump and bespectacled in a school dominated by fashion- conscious students from well-to-do families, Kerby was like a doe in a den of wolves. From the day she arrived, friends and family members say, some popular boys teased Kerby about her weight and taunted her, saying she bought her clothes at Kmart. Those same students, they say, also hurled ethnic, racial, and sexual slurs at Kerby. “They called her whore and Mexican white trash,” said Kerby’s mother, who is white. Mr. Guerra’s family comes from Mexico. Though Kerby was adopted at birth, her biological parents were also Hispanic and white.

One of Kerby’s classmates, 14-year-old Krysten Gregor, who has a white father and an African-American mother, said Kerby often was hassled by other students just for being her friend. “They called her ‘nigger lover,’ ” said Krysten, “and bitch.”

Dusty McCullough, another of Kerby’s friends, said that many times other students held Kerby and kicked her, and threw her against lockers. “Since I’m short, they’d make fun of me, too,” said the 14-year-old boy.

To avoid her oppressors, Kerby’s friends say, she would hide in the girl’s restroom and avoid classes where she might run into those students. When Ms. Barrington, Kerby’s sister, complained to Eagleview’s principal, Ross McAskill, about the harassment, he “shrugged it off,” she maintains.

“He told me she needed to get a backbone,” Ms. Barrington said. Kerby’s tormentors were never adequately punished, according to the Guerras.

Mr. McAskill declined requests to be interviewed for this story, and district officials say the school handled the Guerras’ complaints properly.

In her journal, above, Kerby Guerra penned thoughts about suicide, and she wrote about her talks with a counselor.

Kerby began to slash her wrists, but hid the scars so her parents wouldn’t see. She binged and purged food. Her grades plummeted from B’s to F’s.

Then one night in January of last year, Kerby swallowed a mix of the narcotic Demerol, antibiotics, and Xantac cold medicine—all pinched from her parents’ medicine cabinet. She had written a suicide note, in the tentative handwriting of a child, that said: “Dear Mommy and Daddy, I know my death will shock you, but I had to do it. All my life I’ve been teased and harassed. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.” Rushed to the hospital, her stomach pumped of the toxins, Kerby was admitted that night to a psychiatric facility and put on the anti-depressant Paxil.

While their daughter was in the hospital, the Guerras made plans to transfer her to another school. Ms. Guerra said that when Kerby left the facility, “she felt better. She had a positive outlook.”

Less than two months later, on March 18 of last year, Kerby herself arranged a meeting with the principal. Though she was leaving the school, she wanted to lobby for a support group for other students who were harassed. The meeting didn’t go well, but Kerby hid the depth her disappointment from her family and friends. The next night, in her final note, she apologized to her parents for lying about feeling OK. Then she shot herself.

In the past, children as young as Kerby very rarely killed themselves.

But the United States’ suicide rate for the youngest victims, while still small in number, is increasing faster than at any time since statisticians began recording the data.

In 1997, 303 children ages 10 to 14 committed suicide, a 120 percent leap since 1980. Experts point to a number of possible reasons why younger children, some still in elementary school, are now more likely to take their own lives: a larger number of unstable households, an increase in drug use, and a more stressful world for competitive high achievers. Better reporting may also account for a small part of the increase, experts say.

But many psychiatrists suggest that the suicide rate is higher mainly because children are far more likely to be depressed than they used to be.

For many years, the prevailing psychiatric belief was that children and adolescents couldn’t experience clinical depression. The profession largely embraced Sigmund Freud’s theory that depression was anger turned inward by the superego, and that since children’s unconscious wasn’t fully developed, they couldn’t get depressed. Today, however, it is generally accepted in psychiatric circles that depression doesn’t spare the young.

One in five children under 18 suffers a mood disorder, according to the National Institutes for Mental Health. While children as young as 4 have been diagnosed with depression, it generally appears in those between the ages of 12 and 14, according to Kay Redfield Jamison, a Johns Hopkins University professor of psychiatry and the author of Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.

“Puberty brings with it a whirlpool of emotions and a steady increase in the prevalence of major psychiatric disorders,” she writes.

A report on mental health released by the U.S. surgeon general last fall estimates that at least 90 percent of children and adolescents who commit suicide were diagnosed with a mental disorder prior to their deaths.

Research shows that depression is linked to imbalances in the brain’s neurological soup, and that this faulty chemistry is largely inherited. People who suffer from depression have low levels of a common neurotransmitter called serotonin, a chemical linked to pain perception.

People with depressive illness often lose their will to go to school or work, and their appetite and energy levels decrease for prolonged periods—a condition that is profoundly more devastating than what most people term “the blues.”

In his memoir Darkness Visible, the author William Styron compares depression to suffocation: “The despair comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”

When Kerby Guerra was admitted to the Cleo Wallace Center here, she, too, was cocooned in her own misery. The medical records describe her demeanor as alternately tearful and “vegetative.” After a week of evaluation and counseling, she was diagnosed as having “multiple depressive symptoms,” according to center records.

“She had a mood disorder that required ongoing treatment,” said Kim Shirtleff, a family therapist in private practice who treated Kerby in the emergency room. She was given a prescription of 40 milligrams of Paxil, which is meant to blunt feelings of hopelessness.

But when Kerby walked back into the 1,100-student Eagleview Middle School at the end of January 1999, she felt exposed to the elements again. Joanne Gregor, the mother of Kerby’s friend Krysten, describes Eagleview’s atmosphere in Darwinian terms. “In this school, it’s survival of the fittest,” Ms. Gregor contended.

“Kids who get harassed so much go one of two ways,” said Kerby’s friend Dusty McCullough, who was eager to escape to high school last fall. “They want revenge or they want out.”

Across the country, the chaos churning inside students’ heads is often unlocked by environmental stress, said Dorothy L. Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is an expert on bullying. Youngsters who are bullied, she said, are more likely to commit suicide. Kerby’s depression and the environment at school were a fatal combination, Ms. Shirtleff said after hearing a description of the situation from Kerby and her parents. “She wasn’t able to cope,” she said.

Last September, the Guerras filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, claiming that the school had failed to protect Kerby from racial harassment. Racial slurs violated their child’s legal right to a public education in a safe environment, the Guerras argued. Minority students make up about 11 percent of the school’s enrollment.

In their complaint, the Guerras also claim that they were denied critical information that could have saved their daughter’s life. A year before Kerby committed suicide, she told a counselor that she was suicidal and that information, they contend, was never reported to them."My daughter went to people in the school, she went to counselors and teachers, and no one helped,” Ms. Guerra said recently. “We wanted to come forward and say we won’t take this anymore.”

The Denver office of the OCR, which is handling the Guerras’ complaint, would not comment on the case because it was still under investigation as of last week.

Meanwhile, one of Kerby’s teachers, who asked that her name not be used, said she was livid about the way the school, in her view, was being used as a scapegoat for a family’s problems.

“I think she was disturbed,” the teacher said about Kerby in an interview. “You are dealing with a hysterical girl trying to get attention.”

And Nanette Anderson, the spokeswoman for the 16,900-student school district, said Eagleview Middle School’s environment is far from hostile.

“When I walked down the hall at Eagleview,” she said, “I saw middle school behavior, but I didn’t see anything violent.”

Though she would not comment on Principal McAskill’s specific actions, Ms. Anderson said the school’s response to the Guerras’ complaints about their daughter’s harassment was adequate. “The claims were investigated, and the district found the administration handled the complaints correctly,” she said.

She also disputes the Guerras’ claim that the counselor didn’t inform them of her session with Kerby. “The parents did know about her visit,” Ms. Anderson said. Kerby would still be alive, the district spokeswoman added, if she hadn’t had access to a gun.

Donna Guerra says she feels physically sick when she thinks about Kerby scavenging for the key to her brother-in-law’s gun cabinet.

“We did everything they told us,” Ms. Guerra said. “We locked the medicine cabinet. We did just what the doctors said. We just didn’t get that stupid gun out of the house.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Kerby Guerra, 1985-1999

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