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Reporter Rick Sobey Discusses Series on Anna Aslanian with Herald Radio

January 15, 2019

Sun reporter Rick Sobey was a guest on Boston Herald Radio Monday to discuss the tragic story of Anna Aslanian, a Lowell teen who took her life in October after years of bullying and shunning by her peers in Lowell Public Schools.

Aslanian’s struggles were shared by her family in the hopes that it might help others going through similar ordeals and to shine a light on the issue.

The story, published Sunday, was part of a two-day package in the Herald, Sun and Sentinel & Enterprise covering an increase in youth suicide and cyberbullying, and local and statewide efforts to combat them. On Monday, Herald reporter Alexi Cohan wrote about what has happened in the nine years since Irish transfer student Phoebe Prince took her life after being tormented by her peers in South Hadley.

Here is the transcript of Sobey’s interview with Herald reporter and Sun alum Hillary Chabot, edited for length and clarity.

CHABOT: Talk to me a little bit about how this came about. When did you first hear this story, and just give us your thoughts on how it all came together.

SOBEY: So we heard about this tragedy back when it happened, late October, and at the time we didn’t pursue it. We don’t pursue suicides, but we heard about just this outpouring of support from the community in the wake of Anna Aslanian taking her own life. A few months passed, and the family then, they started to talk. I believe that the family talked to many people in the community about what happened, and they really wanted to get this message out there that this should not happen to other families. Then eventually the mother came to us, Itea Aslanian, and she poured her heart out, telling us all the details of this heartbreaking story of her daughter. She doesn’t want this to happen to any other family. She wants change to happen. She wants schools to step up their policies, and so we’re hearing a lot in the wake of this story about what should be done, how schools can better address this in the future.

CHABOT: The second day package is today, and there’s a lot of looking into that sort of thing. What’s your takeaway?

SOBEY: So far I’ve heard from a few school officials in Lowell. One is a School Committee member for Greater Lowell Tech, and he’s talking about how victims don’t know what happens to the bully. They don’t know if they’re reprimanded, and they don’t know what the punishment is. He thinks that there should be a victim’s bill of rights, where the victim would be empowered to come forward, the victim would learn what happened to the bully, and in his mind, this would go a long way to preventing these types of situations in the future.

CHABOT: What are some of the things that really hit you in the gut as a reporter? Maybe you could share with us certain details that really struck you.

SOBEY: I could not get over how the transformation happened. Before middle school, she would talk to others, talk to bullies and say, “Don’t do that.” Her brother was getting bullied in school, and she went up to the bully and said, “If you do that again to my brother, you’re going to have to deal with me.” Just the transformation, how she was beaten down, she was broken over the years by these bullies. She just was completely changed, and that’s the thing with her parents, with her mother and her grandmother as well, they saw this very confident girl, and then over the years it just -- out of nowhere this happened. That really stands out to me, how just out of nowhere, something like this so tragic can happen. Her mom knew that there were problems. She knew that her daughter was going through a tough time in high school, but never such a result, never coming to this end.

CHABOT: Seeing just the change from eighth grade for Anna, just seems so brutal. One of the things that struck me -- and I just wonder as a reporter, how this came up -- she left a letter, right Rick?

SOBEY: Right, the letter that her mom found behind a picture on the wall, several days after she died.

CHABOT: Did she want to share that with you because she was sort of frustrated with these bullies and at the very least there was sort of a line to them from Anna?

SOBEY: Right. The letter, initially, I didn’t see it.

CHABOT: It’s got to be a tough thing to decide to share.

SOBEY: Definitely. But there was no way for Anna’s voice to get into this story, and we really wanted to give Anna’s voice -- we wanted these very important comments to get out there about mental health. She wrote about just how people feel this way, and that’s OK. People go through these battles, and that’s OK. But she wants others to be able to push through and that’s just such an important message that we felt needed to get out there.

CHABOT: Absolutely. It is interesting that the family decided not to really push forward with any either lawsuit or criminal charges when it comes to the potential bullies. In the case of Phoebe Prince, her bullies were at the very least investigated and certainly taken to task to some extent. The family sort of echoes that there’s a concern here that, if they don’t get any sort of repercussions for their actions, will they think this is just fine? That’s sort of the stuff that you grapple with, and certainly as a reporter and as somebody who follows up on these stories, you’ll probably continue to keep an eye out for?

SOBEY: Yeah, absolutely. The real thing from her parents, it was awareness. That’s the real mission of her mother right now -- awareness, getting the word out. It wasn’t retaliatory, that’s not her mission it seems, but really awareness in the community and making sure that her neighbor doesn’t go through this tragedy and people across the state, country and world don’t have to go through this battle. Because I’ve seen just what this family has gone through and no one should ever have to face this. It’s just absolutely heartbreaking.

CHABOT: At the very least, it’s really great that a reporter like yourself was able to handle the family’s wishes in a way that was sensitive but also was able to get across what they want to get across, and was also able to tell her story and also look at a little bit about what this means for society, what this means for high school communities who unfortunately might be dealing with something like this again. You hope not, but considering the Phoebe Prince story and others that we’ve read from across the country, it is unfortunately prominent at all... Do you guys have anything else lined up for tomorrow?

SOBEY: I’m working on a follow-up for tomorrow on local reaction, and there’s this School Commitee member, he came out very passionate this morning on the phone with me about changes that need to happen. A city councilor I was just on the phone with as well, he says schools really need to step it up. Things are happening right in the middle of the cafeteria or right in the hallway, and nothing’s being done, he said. So that’ll be the follow-up for tomorrow, local reaction, and we’re going to be having a roundtable discussion later this week with some experts and people who have considered suicide. So we’re going to keep on tackling this issue, and definitely stay tuned with more coverage.

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