McKenzie Adams was a 9-year-old fourth-grader with a “bubbly, fun-loving personality” who loved to tell stories and wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. But her life was cut short on Dec. 3 when she hanged herself in her grandmother’s home in Linden, Alabama, after enduring months of bulling, her family says.
“Something happened that day from one of these bullies that pushed my niece over to the edge,” Adams aunt, Eddwina Harris, 33, tells PEOPLE. “It’s an emotional roller coaster. We’re heartbroken.”
Harris says that Adams, who attended U.S. Jones Elementary School in Demopolis, returned home that day and did her homework like always. Adams then excused herself to go to the bathroom, and her grandmother noticed that the little girl had been gone longer than usual.
“She went to the bathroom and the door was locked. [Her grandmother] said, ‘Unlock the door. What are you doing?’ ” Harris recalls of Adams’ grandmother, whom the little girl lived with. “She ran and got a butter knife and she unlocked the door. She found McKenzie.”
Crying and screaming, Adams’ grandmother called 911. Medical officials arrived and performed CPR on the little girl. Adams died later at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital, Harris says.
“The first couple of days [after the death], my sister cried herself to sleep,” Harris says of Adams’ mother. “It was really tough for her. I’m using all my strength to fight for McKenzie. My fight is to get her justice.”
The family says Adams’ death came after months of bullying at the Demopolis school. Harris says that Adams, her mother and grandmother complained several times to school officials who did nothing about the abuse.
‘That Was My Angel’
Adams’ mother, Jasmine Adams, told CBS News that she feels the school system let her daughter down.
“She told me that this one particular child was writing her nasty notes in class,” Jasmine said, adding “that was my angel.”
“It was just things you wouldn’t think a 9-year-old should know. And my baby, to tell me some of the things they had said to her, I was like, ‘Where are they learning this from?’ “
She added: “Part of it could have been because she rode to school with a white family. And a lot of it was race. Some of the student bullies would say to her, ‘Why you riding with white people? You’re black, you’re ugly. You should just die.’ “
Harris says U.S. Jones Elementary was a predominantly white school, and Adams’ bullies were boys and girls both Black and white.
However, the school system has denied that Adams was bullied. Demopolis City School System attorney Alex Braswell tells PEOPLE that the school launched an investigation and determined that “there have been no findings of any reports of bullying by either the student or family.”
The statement reads in part: “In response to the recent tragic the loss of a Demopolis City School System student, The Demopolis City School System does extend its heartfelt wishes and condolences to the family, friends, students and teachers that have been affected. We have concluded our internal investigation to the allegations of bullying which led to this senseless death.”
Neither Demopolis nor Linden police officials immediately responded to a request for comment from PEOPLE.
Harris says she rejects the school’s claims that the bullying was never reported. She says the family spoke with school officials on several occasions, and noted a particular instance in which the assistant principal allegedly promised the family she would monitor Adams’ classroom after the reports.
“Bullying at the school is what led my niece to this. McKenzie told the family and the teachers and the administrators. They all knew. My mom came to the school to talk about the bullying,” Harris says, adding that school officials once moved McKenzie’s seat in class as a result of the bullying.
Harris says Adams returned from school emotionally exhausted some days. And her family always spoke with her and did all they could to help.
“She was well loved,” Harris tells PEOPLE of her niece. “She was surrounded by people that loved her. She was always a loving child. She was in a great environment. She was in a well-loving family.”
Adams’ death comes just weeks after 9-year-old Maddie Whittsett died by suicide, with her family also contributing the death to bullying, according to AL.com.
The deaths shed a light on disheartening statistical trends. The suicide rate for Black children ages 5 to 11 has risen dramatically in the last 25 years, according to the New York Times, which cited a study in the JAMA Pediatrics journal. Although Black Americans are overall far less likely to die by suicide than other groups, Black boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 12 are dying by suicide at double the rate of white children their age, according to a 2018 study published in JAMA.
Now, Harris says she and her family are taking action against bullying. The family has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for The McKenzie Foundation, to support kids who have or are being bullied.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.