Daisy Coleman: Bullied to the Brink

Just two years ago Daisy Coleman was a bubbly, popular high school freshman who, despite her busy schedule as a cheerleader and dance competitor, maintained a straight-A average. These days Daisy, 16, is what her mother calls a “B-ish student,” recuperating in a psychiatric hospital after swallowing some 50 Benadryls – her third suicide attempt since becoming the target of vicious bullying in Maryville, Mo., after she accused a school football player in January 2012 of rape and he countered that their sexual activity had been consensual. Angered to be the focus of a “slut-shame” campaign after charges against the boy were dropped, Daisy went public, writing in Seventeen that people were “calling me a bitch, a whore and a slut every single day … What I went through wasn’t okay, and it’s not okay if it happens to other girls.” But such bravura was only part of the truth; inside, Daisy was dying a little more each day. Then last October the case was reopened. On xojane.com (see box), an ebullient Daisy wrote, “This is a victory, not just for me, but for every girl.”

On Jan. 9 the criminal matter, by now a national media story, was finally laid to rest. Matthew Barnett pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of child endangerment, brought because after their encounter, he left a drunk and unconscious Daisy on her doorstep, where she lay for three hours clad only in yoga pants and a shirt, despite the subfreezing weather. Barnett, now 19, was sentenced to two years of probation. At the same time, a charge against Jordan Zech, now 19, for filming the sexual encounter between Barnett and Daisy (video that was deleted from an iPhone) was dropped. As part of his plea deal, Barnett apologized to Daisy in a statement that will be relayed to her by prosecutors. (His attorney J.R. Hobbs told reporters that Barnett “truly regrets the actions to which he pled guilty,” and does not intend further comment.) Daisy wrote to the court, “I am ready to move forward.” “Justice was served,” says Nodaway County Sheriff Darren White. “A lot of the people in this community have grown tired of this and really want to move on.”

Melinda Coleman would like to move on too, but her daughter’s latest suicide attempt suggests that the fallout is far from over. This attempt, four days before Barnett’s plea, followed a flare-up of nasty messages on Facebook calling Daisy a “skank” and a “slut.” After being hospitalized, Daisy told a social worker that this third attempt to end her life was deliberate. “It’s obvious she’s not just doing it for attention,” says Melinda, 52, a veterinarian. “The last two times were overdosing and serious, and that’s the scariest part: the increasing intensity.”

In the 17 months since her family relocated from Maryville to Albany, 40 miles away, to distance Daisy from the taunting, there have been incidents that have left the widowed Melinda worrying about the safety of her three sons as well. The home she put up for sale in Maryville was demolished by fire in April 2013. Police and insurance investigators concluded that faulty wiring caused the blaze. Seven months later Daisy, alone in the family’s Hummer, was followed and bumped by another vehicle. Daisy escaped with bruises; the Hummer was totaled. “Houses don’t just burn down,” Melinda says. “People don’t just run you off the road.”

The original investigation proceeded quickly after Daisy said that she’d snuck out of her house with her friend Paige to meet up with Barnett, whom she charged had knocked her out with alcohol, then raped her. Barnett countered that their sexual activity, legal in the state of Missouri between minors 14 and over, was consensual. The day after the alleged assault, Barnett was charged with felony sex assault and Zech with felony exploitation of a minor. At that point the Colemans became pariahs. Daisy’s brother Charlie, a high school senior, was booed at a wrestling team event and told that his mother and sister were “crazy bitches.” Melinda was fired from her job at Maryville’s SouthPaws Veterinary Clinic, a move that the clinic called unrelated to Daisy’s situation.

Two months later charges against both boys were dropped. Daisy turned up at a dance competition to find a friend wearing a T-shirt that read “Matt 1, Daisy 0.” Soon after, Daisy hurt herself for the first time, burning the boys’ names in her forearm, then swallowing a bottle of cold medicine. “She said that everyone else hated her and she hated herself too,” Melinda recalls. Later, she crushed pills in juice. Charlie, now 20, found her unconscious. “My boys were hysterical,” says Melinda. Her youngest, Tristan, 15, “who had already lost his father, kept saying, ‘Daisy, we can’t lose you too.'”

All because, says Melinda, “everyone got onto Facebook and Twitter and said it was proof that Daisy was a liar.” Even so, it did not escape notice that Barnett was the grandson of Rex Barnett, a four-term state representative. A petition calling for an investigation generated 1,200 signatures but no action. After the Kansas City Star published an investigative piece, state officials pressed for a new investigation. At that point a special prosecutor was appointed. Heartened by the prospect of justice, Daisy outed herself as the teen “at the center of the Maryville rape media storm,” noting in an article that Paige, 13, had been assaulted by a different boy that same night, a fact she’d learned later. When Paige’s case was settled in juvenile court, “I was happy that she got closure and justice,” she wrote.

Now, Daisy has “closure” of a sort, but her mother knows it’s not nearly enough. Referring to the Harry Potter books, she says, “Sometimes I feel the Dementors have come and sucked the joy out of everything.” These days Daisy finds comfort in solitary pursuits: playing music, her charcoal drawings and her journal. Having lost her physician father in a car accident at age 9, Daisy sounds at times like a very determined survivor, insisting that the assault won’t “define her.” But Daisy’s mood goes up and down. Now as her daughter prepares to leave the psychiatric hospital, Melinda is bracing herself. “It’s a marathon,” says the heartsick mother, “not a sprint.”

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