By Srijita Chattopadhyay
It was a typical winter evening at the Hack household. Melanie Hack had just picked up her oldest daughter Reagan Harley Carter, 12, from a school basketball game. It was nearly half-past eight in the evening and Melanie was in the kitchen preparing supper. Everything seemed normal — perfect. Her youngest daughter, Zoey, 1, was fast asleep in the crib. Her step-daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Billy, had already left for their night shifts and her step-son Tyler was in the basement.
Within minutes, things changed. Reagan came up to her, crying, requesting her to take her to the hospital. Perplexed, Melanie asked Reagan what was wrong. Sobbing, Reagan told her mother that she had taken a handful of prescription cough suppressant pills. Horrified by the confession, Melanie held her child and told her everything would be OK.
Melanie shouted out to Tyler for help, asking him to call 911 as she tried to find the number to call poison control. She asked Reagan why she would do such a thing. To that Reagan said, “I am tired of everybody hating me.”
Those were the last words she spoke before collapsing in her mother’s arms. Melanie remembers screaming because she was not sure if Reagan was still breathing. In the frenzy, she was unable to recall how to give CPR. Small, cold, motionless, Reagan lay in Melanie’s arms on the kitchen floor as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.
On Dec. 23, 2014, five days after being admitted to the hospital, Reagan was pronounced brain dead by her doctors at Kosair Children’s Hospital (known as Norton Children’s Hospital since September 2016) in Louisville.
“I still feel with every bit of my heart that she didn’t mean to die,” Melanie said. “Because she thought her mama could save her. But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t save her.”
Reagan, was a victim of bullying and cyberbullying at school. According to the data collected by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by means of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2015, 20 percent of high school students in the United States were bullied on school property while 22 percent of high school students were bullied on school property in Kentucky.
Similarly, 16 percent of the sampled high school students in the country were cyberbullied through e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites and text messages, whereas 17 percent of the sample from Kentucky high school reported cyberbullying. In both national and local data sets, it showed that girls in high school were more prone to being bullied on school property and over electronic media than boys. The local statistic showed that 29 percent of the female Kentucky high schoolers reported being bullied on school property, compared 25 percent nationally.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been collecting data in regards to bullying on school property since 2009 and cyberbullying since 2011. According to the data, there has been no significant increase in bullying over the years. But the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System which was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1990 to monitor priority health risk behaviors among youth and adults in the United States, shows that attempted suicide that resulted in an injury, poisoning, or overdose that had to be treated by a doctor or nurse in the United States rose from 1.9 percent in 2009 to 2.8 percent in 2015.
For Reagan, the cyberbullying started in September 2014 when a group of girls in her middle school started making snide comments and remarks about her. Melanie said that Reagan was specifically targeted by these girls because a boy they liked had a crush on Reagan instead. As the months went by, the bullying began to evolve into a more aggressive form, Melanie said, from name-calling on social media to intimidating looks and gestures in the hallway of Bardstown Middle school.
When Melanie learned about the harassment that Reagan was facing, she said she approached the school principal nearly three times over the period of two months, imploring him to do something about the situation. But, Melanie said she and her husband’s concerns were brushed off.
“Along with the social media comments some rumors had been started about Reagan. I remember that day so clearly because I felt he (the principal) dismissed it,” she said. “I know teenage drama is teenage drama but I still felt like he wasn’t taking it very seriously.”
Melanie said she remembers going back to her car after her meeting with Dr. Ryan Clark, the principal of Bardstown Middle School, and crying to her husband, telling him that she was afraid that if the school and she are unable to fix the situation, that Reagan would eventually stop voicing her concerns.
It was at that point when Melanie, her husband, and Reagan’s father, Jimmy Carter collectively decided that it would be best to transfer her to a different school district come January 2015. Melanie said that the decision upset her very much because it would mean that Reagan would have to move to Monroe County to her father’s house. But, she thought it was best for Reagan.
December 18, 2014, was supposed to be the last time Reagan was going to be on the grounds of Bardstown Middle School for the basketball game. It was at the game when the group of bullies hazed her once again by blocking her path to the gym door, Melanie said. That same night, Reagan took the pills.
While at the hospital all of her family members, friends and well-wishers thought Reagan would survive somehow.
Apryl Roberts, one of Melanie’s close friend said that she recalls Melanie continuously stroking and brushing Reagan’s hair, while she lay hooked up to wires and ominously beeping machines.
“It was probably the hardest thing to watch as a friend and as a mother,” Roberts said.
Doctors pronounced Reagan brain-dead two days before Christmas, Reagan’s favorite holiday, on Dec. 23.
After Reagan’s death, Melanie’s life lost meaning.
Roberts is among Melanie’s three closest friends. Referred to as “the girls,” Roberts, Melanie Bean-Jennings and Amy O’Neil have been her constant source of support. From being there with her in the hospital room, to making arrangements for the funeral, to taking care of Melanie regularly.
“We try to be there for her always,” Roberts said. “We are not going to leave her; she will not do this alone.”
Melanie and her friends meet once a month and spend a considerable amount of time together talking, joking, reminiscing, crying and being there for each other. Bean-Jennings said that it is cathartic for all of them to have a platform to share their life with friends who have been there since high school days.
Melanie’s other source of support and her rock through the trauma has been her husband, Billy. Married for six years now, Melanie said that she could not have gone through this without Billy. Still, she constantly feels that she has nothing more to offer to him in their marriage.
“I have a tremendous support system in terms of my husband and my family and friends, which is probably why I am here today,” she said. “But everything is just numb. I don’t feel like there is anything else to give.”
Even with the ups and the downs, Billy said that he feels that the situation has made their relationship stronger. There are days, Billy said, when Melanie does not want to do anything because memories of Reagan haunt her.
“It is not just Melanie; we both struggle with this, every day,” Billy said. “Several times a day.”
Melanie is a marriage and family therapist. Her job is to hear people’s grievances and help them with their problems. Even though it means putting her problems on the back burner, Billy said. Melanie currently works two jobs and said that she enjoys the distraction.
“At this point in time in my life, I work as many jobs as I can to keep my mind busy since I lost Reagan,” she said.
Another form of distraction that keeps Melanie going is the nonprofit she runs for Reagan called Reagan’s Voice Foundation. Founded in March of 2015 with the help of her friends, her husband, Reagan’s father and her acquaintance Ronda Elam, the foundation helps Melanie keep Reagan’s memory alive by talking about her and sharing her story with students.
Elam who is a part of the guidance committee of the foundation said that after Melanie’s presentation there are “no dry eyes in the house.” She said that after each presentation that Melanie gives, students, both boys, and girls, surround her expressing their condolences.
Through the reach of this foundation, Melanie has been approached by many families who have lost or nearly lost their children to suicide caused by bullying in school, Melanie said. Talking to these parents and guardians she said, helps her feel that she is not alone in her anguish.
A year after Reagan’s demise, December 2015, her family filed a lawsuit at Nelson County Circuit Court against Bardstown City Schools, as well the school’s administrators, Principal Clark, Superintendent Brent Holsclaw, assistant principal Melissa Taylor and former guidance counselor Katie Martin. Melanie said that the suit is “not about the money” rather she wants to bring justice to Reagan’s death and prevent other deaths related to bullying. The suit is still pending.
Clark declined to discuss Reagan’s death due to the pending litigation. The other administrators of Bardstown Middle School did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
But Clark did agree to discuss general school policies regarding “peer conflict” that has existed in the school since before the incident with Reagan. He said that the school’s staff members are equipped to handle any sort of peer conflict that arises on the school’s premise. He said that the students undergo a bullying curriculum during their homeroom classes to make sure everyone is aware of bullying.
As the litigation continues to go through the system, both Melanie and Billy said that they hope that this brings about a change in the policy of how schools deal with bullying.
“I wish parents and school administrators had taken this (bullying) seriously,” Billy said.
Today, the Hack family lives on a farm they purchased in February 2017 in Cecilia, Kentucky. The family had plans to move to a bigger house many months before Reagan’s death. After her passing, Melanie contemplated the move for two years and eventually thought it was in the best interest of her family.
“One of the things that I have clinged to was Reagan’s room,” she said. “Trying to keep it the same, walking by her door and even trying to convince myself that she was still in there or would be coming back. So to think about not having that is heartbreaking.”
In moving to the new house, Melanie said that she often feels that she is somehow boxing away Reagan’s memories even though every wall in their house is covered with Reagan’s smiling face peering through the numerous photo frames. Melanie decided to dedicate a room to Reagan in their new house.
Melanie often reviews the night of Dec. 18, 2014, in her head, she said. She goes over the incident, again and again, wondering if there was something she could have done to prevent the accident.
Talking about Reagan, telling stories about her 12 years, is all Melanie has, Billy said.
“I hope she never stops. Ever,” Billy said.
Even though Melanie lives with the burden of truth, she finds solace in Reagan’s younger sister, Zoey.
“There are times that I look at Zoey, it takes my breath away because she’ll have a look on her face that looks so much like Reagan,” she said. “What little happiness I have left is because of her.”