In Grace's honor
Alumni lead fight against cyberbullying in absence of traditional justice for their daughter
Grace McComas doesn’t want you to be sad for her.
Her mom, Christine Pfister McComas, ’87, will tell you the same thing. The third of Christine and husband David’s (’85) four boisterous daughters, 15-year-old Grace was a happy, bubbly kid since birth, gifted with the perfect combination of a contagious sense of humor and the unbreakable ties of a loving family at home under a warm, inviting roof in Woodbine, Md. Grace occupied her evenings with the activities of a typical teenager: homework, TV, texting with friends.
But Grace’s selflessness was unwavering. Those closest to her say above all it’s what defined her: putting others first.
And that’s why she doesn’t want you to be sad for her. It’s hard to believe anyone would mistreat such a tenderhearted person, but someone did. Call it harassment. Call it bullying. Call it cruelty. It was all of those things, and it was too much to bear.
Grace McComas took her own life on Easter Sunday, 2012. She was the victim of a bully who began his crusade in the digital realm and watched it spread like wildfire.
The world stopped for Christine, David, and their family. Their light was gone, the love they built irreversibly crushed.
“If it can happen to her it can happen to anybody,” said Christine. “The horror of it is it should happen to no one.”
Now the McComas family is fighting to make sure it doesn’t.
“We did everything we were supposed to do”
The bullying began in summer 2011. Grace was troubled by the words and actions of an older classmate who lived in the neighborhood and often walked home with her from the bus stop. Grace expressed her concerns to her mother Christine, who in turn – with Grace’s approval – relayed the information to the parents of her classmate.
Soon after, the classmate took to Twitter to publicize his anger. Grace was a snitch, and he wanted the world to know:
… Next time my name rolls off your tongue, choke on it... and DIE …
… I hope you somehow see this and cry yourself to sleep then kill yourself …
Initially, Christine told Grace not to pay attention to the electronic vitriol. Ignore it. Let his frustration run its course. But the tweets begot real-world gossip at school, and the typed attacks only intensified.
Grace stopped being Grace.
“It took its toll, it damaged her. She kept her humor. She got anxious, she couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t eat. She got to the point where she wouldn’t go outside,” said Christine. “She was afraid all the time. She wouldn’t even walk to the mailbox.”
This was, in its purest form, what has become known as “cyberbullying” – when kids threaten each other or spread rumors using electronic technology like text messages and social media like Facebook and Twitter. In 2011, more than 16 percent of U.S. high school students had experienced electronic bullying in some form.
Cyberbullying is vastly different from traditional bullying and in many ways even more dangerous; the attacks can be anonymous and untraceable, they can be shared and spread among a wide audience during all hours of the day, and they can be inescapable for the victim because of the ubiquitous use of technology among young people.
Abstaining offers negligible protection. Grace didn’t even have a Twitter account.
“It’s hatred and gossip at the speed of digital media, and these kids are so connected with each other they can’t get away from it, they can’t ignore it,” said Christine.
By October 2011 Christine and David had contacted the police, state’s attorney, and the court system in Howard County. There was little these public agencies would or could do. Grace’s school required everyone filing a bullying report to submit an official form. Grace refused for months, terrified at the prospect of being trapped in the same building for hours a day with a person who was already threatening her for turning him in once before. She acquiesced in January 2012 and Christine notified the school.
The bully was slapped with a 10-day suspension, which he served at home in his and Grace’s neighborhood.
Even as the frequency of the bullying waned, the mere awareness of its potential was enough to keep Grace awake at night. Christine looked next to counseling, home tutoring, doctors’ visits. Anything to give Grace additional support.
“We were calling for help,” Christine said. “We did everything the bullying experts tell you to do.”
Everything wasn’t enough.
“In the beginning the loss was absolutely devastating and that never leaves you,” said Christine. “Then the confusion sets in. I didn’t know what to put my focus on, because there were so many things that went wrong.”
After Grace’s death, the McComas family was faced with a choice: grieve in private or share Grace’s story as the catalyst for change in a system where some victims of cyberbullying can’t get the help they need.
“I stood over her body in the hospital and I just knew a great injustice had been done,” said Christine. “I knew something had to change, something had to be fixed.”
But what? Awareness, followed by policy changes. A steep hill to climb considering neither Christine nor husband David is in a position to become full-time advocates. Christine is a horticulturist with the Home & Garden Information Center at the University of Maryland Extension in Ellicott City (gardening has always been her passion). David has worked on satellite computer systems at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center since he graduated from Loyola with a computer science degree almost three decades ago. Their two oldest daughters, Cara and Megan, are in college. Their youngest, Gloria, is in middle school.
To their relief, the McComases didn’t have to carry this torch alone; in fact, they found heavy hitters in their corner. Less than a month after Grace died, Christine and David spoke at a pro-kindness/anti-bullying rally hosted by Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and the Ray Of Hope campaign. In November 2012 Christine testified before the Howard County Council at a hearing on a special bullying resolution.
Most significant, however, is legislation introduced in the Maryland General Assembly by Del. Jon Cardin during the 2013 legislative session. Nicknamed “Grace’s Law,” HB 396 would ban harassment on social media platforms and make cyberbullying of a minor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $500 fine. Christine testified on the bill, as did David and the older daughters during a March 7 committee hearing that garnered extensive media coverage; the bill passed the House unanimously on March 23 and now will be considered by the Senate.
Christine knows it’s what Grace would have wanted.
“I feel like it brings honor to her if we can make changes in her name, and I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my life right now.”
Just a moment in time
It’s this kind of justice – for the greater good – that finds strong support in the McComas family’s Catholic faith. In fact, they’ve had what Christine calls a “spiritual reawakening” since their struggles began.
In the wake of losing a child, a sister, they trusted faith to guide them.
“The only peace that I could find was to try to trust God to just hold on to me because I couldn’t see where I was going,” said Christine. “It stops the despair when you believe love is eternal and you realize it’s only a moment in time before you see her again.”
Christine serves as a cantor at her church, and her love of singing dates back to when she was a cantor, member of the Belles, and in several musical productions while a student at Loyola.
Grace valued faith, too. She was close to receiving her confirmation in the months leading up to her death, but she postponed it because her bully had a sibling in the same confirmation class. She didn’t want to risk seeing him at any of the celebratory events.
In her journal she wrote she hoped she could move on happily and forgive those who had hurt her.
Grace wrote scriptures on the back of her bedroom door. Christine didn’t find them until she was already gone.
“I used to think suicide was the most selfish thing someone could do,” said Christine. “But honestly I see it so much differently now from having seen her struggle – and I struggled right along with her trying to get her help. She wanted the pain to stop. I think she wanted to go home.”
Two sacraments and a final sign of love
The McComases’ priest gave Grace the sacrament of confirmation before giving her last rights as she lay on life support at Johns Hopkins Hospital on April 8, 2012.
On that Easter Sunday, Grace had no heartbeat, no blood pressure, and wasn’t breathing. The doctors told the McComas family it was time to say goodbye. Christine leaned down and embraced Grace’s body, singing to her quietly.
At that moment Grace’s heartbeat and respiration returned, long enough to make the complicated arrangements for organ donation. Three people were given a second chance at life through her death.
Hate drove her to that death, but more powerful are both the love that made her rise again, and her family’s commitment to seek justice in her name.
For more information about Grace, cyberbulling, and current legislation in Maryland, visit the Grace K. McComas Memorial Page on Facebook.