Union County Weekly
Ash Haffner felt pulled in every direction. It was more than she could bear. When it all became too much, the 16-year-old took her own life by stepping in front of an oncoming vehicle on Poplin Road on Feb. 26.
While her mother, April Quick, never expected this would happen, she said Ash was feeling pressure from multiple angles: identity crisis, bullying and physical abuse.
“She was already going through a lot of struggles. She was very fragile and had been so for many years,” Quick said.
Ash struggled with her sexual identity and gender orientation, Quick said. At the time of her death, Quick said she still hadn’t decided if she identified as a transgender male or lesbian female.
“She was going back and forth with her sexuality, so when she passed she wasn’t in a place where, you know, she had a definitive answer,” she said. “That was something she was trying to figure out.”
Quick refers to Ash as a female, because that is how she knew her; however, Quick said she doesn’t take offense either way. She said she and Ash talked about it and Ash even had chosen a new name, Ashton Alexander, before changing her mind again.
High school is a confusing time for any teenager, and Ash’s situation led to bullying at her school, Porter Ridge High School in Indian Trail, Quick said.
Ash’s journey to self discovery propelled others to treat her negatively. Some of Ash’s peers wanted to label her, but Ash was still trying to define herself, Quick said.
One section of Ash’s journal explains how she felt:
“(sic) don’t be so quick jumping to labels. My pronouns do not define me. but when you ask me if i’m a boy or a girl, i don’t know how to answer. i haven’t even identified my gender identity yet so just leave it alone and call me Ash.”
Quick said the bullying eventually became too much for Ash.
“Students would say things to her in the hallways. She got to where she wouldn’t dress out at P.E., because girls didn’t want her in the dressing room,” she said.
In a suicide note from Ash, later found on her iPad, she wrote, “(sic) if people would have just stayed silent and keep their ignorant thoughts in their heads then maybe I wouldn’t have those scars on my arms … to die early is a reminder that society is still (expletive) after all the deaths from suicide because of bullying and the scars on peoples arms.”
Quick said Ash cut herself for two years, as a way of dealing with the pain. She had scars on both of her arms and had been in therapy for self-harm.
Bullying, sexual identity and gender orientation were only part of the problem. Quick said her family, including Ash, had been the victims of domestic violence for years. Quick’s ex-boyfriend had been physically and emotionally abusive to Quick and her three children up until weeks before Ash’s death.
“Everyone would think she had a perfect life,” Quick said, “but people don’t realize what’s going on behind closed doors. The struggles we were going through as a family.”
Quick decided to start an online conversation in honor of Ash called “Do It For Ash.”
Ash’s best friend, Courtney Wilson, also started selling tie-dyed T-shirts in Ash’s honor. All proceeds benefit Time Out Youth (TOY), a Charlotte-based nonprofit that serves as a safe place for LGBTQ youth and allies to hang out and participate in various enriching programs and activities.
“I wanted there to be something to remember her by … a statement against bullying,” Courtney said.
Quick asked that donations be made to TOY, where Ash regularly attended functions, in lieu of flowers.
“I knew how much (TOY) meant to Ashlyn and how grateful I was to find an organization like that … I wish we’d found them sooner,” Quick said.
Courtney, also 16 years old, was friends with Ash since elementary school. She tearfully spoke about how much she missed Ash’s happiness, humor and selfless consideration for others.
Even in the last words Ash ever wrote, she expressed her concern for others.
“I didn’t have a lot going for me but I know a lot of you do so please do what makes you happy. (sic) please be who you are. do it for yourself. do it for your happiness. that’s what matters in your life. you don’t need approval to be who you are. don’t let people change who you are just because they’re not satisfied with your image,” she wrote.
Waxhaw resident Stacey Cunningham addressed the Union County Public Schools (UCPS) Board of Education (BoE) at its March 10 meeting about bullying and suicide in the wake of Ash’s death.
She also spoke about Taylor Hunter, a 15-year-old Parkwood High School student who took her own life on Feb. 21. Taylor’s family could not be reached for comment by Union County Weekly’s press deadline.
“We have lost two beautiful students who have committed suicide in two weeks. My heart grieves and my heart aches that these students have endured bullying,” Cunningham said.
She continued by questioning the district’s bullying policies and inclusive strategies.
“I ask the school district and community to fix this. When a child commits suicide, don’t just blame the parents,” she said. “My hope is that we have a community where people don’t need to fit in, but belong as who they are.”
Boardmember Gary Sides and UCPS Superintendent Dr. Mary Ellis discussed the suicides and bullying later in the meeting.
“It has caused me to rethink the pressures and the day (in which) we live when our young people are coping with many things that we didn’t have to deal with,” Sides said.
Sides serves on the Union County Human Services Board and said he hopes to make a connection between schools and county resources on bullying and suicide.
“We, in the school system, are a reflection of society… I don’t want anyone to think we haven’t been doing anything. We are doing more than we’ve ever done,” Ellis said. “Obviously more needs to be done, but let me say this one more time, we are a reflection of society and a reflection of the home and we will do our best to serve all children.”
Ellis said she has been in discussions with local high school principals about ways to start conversations with student leaders on bullying.
Dr. Bashawn Harris, Porter Ridge principal, spoke on a conference call with Union County Weekly and other UCPS officials about the effect of Ash’s suicide.
“We lost a student, we lost a Pirate. (Students and staff) definitely took it to heart,” he said. “When we first found out, multiple counselors were on site to help deal with the loss. We also met with community members to create coping strategies to better prevent this from happening in the future.”
Harris said the most important way the school is working to prevent future tragic incidents was through a higher level of awareness.
“We do make bullying a focal point of discussion with students, being that it’s a bigger societal issue, along with inviting community members to become involved,” he said. “We don’t react; we are very proactive. We’ve done this for years and are continually trying to improve the methods we use.”
Harris said it’s also important to connect with parents to get a well-rounded understanding of what’s happening with students. He said school and community counseling options are available for parents and students.
Quick said the school has not contacted her since their initial response, after Ash’s passing.
In November 2014, Indian Trail Mayor Michael Alvarez started working with Southern Piedmont Community College sociology professor Steve Smith on an anti-bullying initiative adopted from a nationwide mayoral campaign called ““Mayors Campaign to End Bullying.”
He hopes to work with the BOE this spring to create a school campaign that focuses on education, prevention, creating a student buddy system and bringing in people who overcame bullying to share their personal stories.
Alvarez said he was distraught by Ash’s death and believes her suicide is a tragic wake-up call for Union County.
“This is about a child that saw no way out. A piece of each one of us dies along with her. We are supposed to make it better. There are no words that can change her fate, but we can honor her with our actions in the future,” Alvarez said.
Contact Courtney Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase T-shirts.
Visit here for updates on Quick’s fight against bullying.