Updated: 11:44 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010 | Posted: 11:25 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010

Kettering teen’s suicide spotlights benefits, risks of social networking


Kettering teen’s suicide spotlights benefits, risks of social networking photo
Michelle Fox is embraced by friends of her daughter Megan Fickert as they remember her at Fairmont High School during a vigil in her memory Oct. 20. Fickert committed suicide Oct. 13.

By Mary McCarty

Staff Writer

Few things are more painful than watching teenagers grapple with the profound mystery of suicide.

They have little concept of their own mortality, let alone the notion that a friend could choose to die by his or her own hand.

Especially not when it’s “the most fun, outgoing girl ever,” as a friend described 15-year-old Kettering Fairmont sophomore Megan Fickert.

Fairmont officials have dealt with the tragedy with commendable openness, even sanctioning a candlelight vigil on school grounds. But the high school courtyard isn’t the only place where this private tragedy has gone very public — and in ways that would have been inconceivable less than 10 years ago.

I’m talking, of course, about the Facebook Factor.

Teenagers watching the recent hit movie “The Social Network” — a somewhat fictionalized account of Mark Zuckerberg’s role in Facebook’s founding — might be astonished to learn that the concept was cooked up in a Harvard dorm room only six years ago. It has become as integral and normal a part of the life of the American teenager as television was to their parents.

Megan’s death demonstrated the perils and promise of Facebook and the Internet.

Facebook provided a place where Megan’s friends could gather and share their grief at any time of the day or night. It also served as a conduit for rumors and unfounded gossip.

A single posting, such as one declaring, “Anyone who was mean to that girl deserves to die,” can go out to that kid’s 1,000 closest friends — and then on to their 1,000 closest friends. Thus Facebook’s loaves-and-fishes effect, so beneficial in promoting causes or events, can turn destructive.

Add to that the penchant of some teens to post every thought that comes into their heads, and you’ve got trouble. As Fairmont principal Dan Von Handorf noted, “They have no filter.”

Some students appeared to have no grasp of the concept of slander or libel, posting unfounded rumors about Megan’s family or naming specific individuals as being to blame for Megan’s death. For a short time after her suicide, a public “RIP Megan Fickert” page was posted on Facebook. It has since been taken down, though the family doesn’t know why. Megan’s personal Facebook page is still up, providing a forum for her friends to talk to one another.

Von Handorf noted that it’s impossible to monitor students’ Facebook postings thoroughly, both for privacy reasons and for sheer logistics. When school officials became aware of problem posts, Von Handorf said they dealt with them on a “kid-by-kid, case-by-case basis about what they should and shouldn’t be posting on the Internet. It was an educational moment and it really opened their eyes. They didn’t realize it would be such a big deal.”

Von Handorf advised parents to watch what their kids are posting and to talk to them if they find anything disturbing. “You shouldn’t have any problem with reminding your kids that it’s your house, your computer, and if they can’t abide by the rules they won’t have a computer at home,” he said.

Megan’s sister-in-law, Cassidy Fickert of Bellbrook, said she believes social networks have been mostly beneficial in helping her friends deal with their grief.

“It’s not like you can get 1,500 kids in one room to have a place to grieve together,” she said. “When they go to the website, it’s like she’s there with them. It was their outlet to talk to her.”

There were no social networks, no grief counselors, to help her when a friend committed suicide in high school. There were no vigils like the one held in Fairmont’s courtyard Oct. 20, exactly a week after Megan’s death.

As Megan’s classmates cried, laughed and shared funny stories, a common theme emerged: She was the confidante of countless friends who didn’t turn to them the night she died.

“Walking through these hallways, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels Megan walking with us,” one friend said.

One of the most emotional speeches came from Kathy Saunders, the girlfriend of Megan’s father, Kevin Fickert Sr. of New Lebanon. “I want all of you know each and every one of you is special and that you’re not alone; you’re never alone,” Saunders pleaded. “Don’t ever be ashamed to seek help. Don’t let her be forgotten and always keep her close to your heart.”

Megan’s mother, Michelle Fox of Kettering, urged the students to continue coming to her house, “My door is always open. My heart is always open.”

It was a raw and touching and healing moment — and a reminder that being on Facebook can never be a substitute for being face-to-face.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2209 or mmccarty@Dayton DailyNews.com.


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