Students at Glenroy College in Melbourne’s north thought they were in for a boring power-point presentation about cyber bullying — they had heard the warnings before, but never like this.
“Jessica was 18, she was extremely popular in school, she was loving and caring,” Michael began.
Within seconds, the students were silent and enthralled. Within minutes, several were crying.
“Leading right up to Jessica’s death there were no signs of depression, but she committed suicide after being cyber bullied,” the Victorian father continued.
On Easter Saturday 2014, Michael and his wife, Jane, received a text message from their daughter at 7:30am, saying she was going for a run on a large, rural property next to theirs.
When Jessica was not home a few hours later, and no-one could reach her by mobile phone, Michael and Jane began looking for her.
“We walked around for three hours and hadn’t found her so I went back to the house,” Michael told the school group.
“She still wasn’t there so I started driving around in the car looking for her.
“I drove up the top of the hill and as I drove by something caught the corner of my eye and I found her.”
Jessica Cleland had taken her own life.
“There were absolutely no signs that there was anything wrong,” Michael repeated, his voice breaking.
He took a deep breath before continuing.
“The whole family was devastated; we were all in a shock.
“Having to deal with something like that is nothing any of you should go through.”
The teenagers were captivated by Michael’s candour.
No-one was looking out the window or fiddling on their mobile phones. Instead they were transfixed by this emotional father’s every word.
“The day after I found Jess, my eldest daughter Amy and myself started wondering what the hell had gone wrong,” Michael continued.
“We still had her laptop and her iPad so we started looking through them and saw she had been cyber bullied the night before she died.
“Two people were telling her that she was a sook, that she should just get over things, that ‘if you come around to my place, I’m going to slam the door in your face. You’re useless’.
“There were 87 messages between the two and you could tell how hurt Jess was in the messages.
“She was pleading with them just to stop but they relentlessly just kept going.”
Father using daughter’s death to educate others
Michael Cleland recently signed up to be an ambassador with the Bully Zero Australia Foundation, a not-for-profit group supporting victims and raising awareness about the dangers and consequences of bullying.
The organisation’s chief executive, Oscar Yildiz, who holds anti-bullying sessions at schools every week, said parents such as Michael Cleland were incredibly courageous in joining him.
“To have ambassadors who have actually been through a child’s death after cyber bullying — they’ve been through that pain, they live the nightmare every day — to be able to express that to an audience of young teenagers is probably the most effective way of delivering these messages,” he told 7.30.
“These parents are using the death of their own kids to educate others and we’ve got an army of these families.
“We are so appreciative that they’re able to come out out of the goodness of their hearts. They don’t get paid, they’re all volunteers.”
Mr Yildiz said he hoped emotional sessions, such as Michael Cleland’s, would empower teenagers to carefully consider their online behaviour.
“When people start to feel something they change and I think a lot of these teenagers will leave this room this morning thinking ‘I need to think twice about some of the messages I do write’,” he said.
Although Michael Cleland’s talk at Glenroy College started on a sad note, it included many positive and encouraging messages too.
“With life, you have these ups and downs, sometimes you fall in these really deep holes and it feels absolutely horrible, but there are more good times than bad,” he told the students.
“With Jessica being 18, she didn’t realise things would get better, she hadn’t had the life experiences to see that life would get better.
“Never give up on life, ok? Because there’s an answer to every question.
“Never ever give up on life because you can always work out your problems.”
Emotional ‘real’ story resonates with students
Before social media and text messaging, bullying was left at the school gate, but in an age where a mobile phone is like an extension of a person’s anatomy, no-one is ever offline.
Michael said he had heard people say parents should take mobile phones from their teenage children or limit their internet use, but he disagrees.
“Why should [teenagers] give their phone up?” he asked.
“It’s like a woman saying, ‘I want to dress in a certain way’ and people say ‘oh, if you go and dress like that you’re putting yourself in danger’ — you’re sort of taking away their liberties.
“Why should Jess have given up something because somebody else misused it?”
Michael spoke directly to any cyber bullies in the audience too.
“It’s so easy to sit behind a computer screen and type something nasty and push the send button and think ‘ha, ha, I’ve done something,’ but the consequences on the other end could be like us — it destroys a family,” he said.
After the talk, many students stayed behind to thank, and hug, their guest speaker.
“He can’t bring his daughter back, nothing can bring her back,” student Stephanie Carton said.
“People need to stop and realise that bullying is serious and it’s taking people’s lives because of other people’s immature and childish actions.”
“It does make me think more on what I say online and how I say it and what it means to other people and what it does to them mentally,” another student, Christian Cashia said.
“I thought it was interesting how we got an experience from somebody whose daughter has actually killed herself, because I’ve never actually talked to someone who’s been through that,” student Mathew Ashton said.
“You see it on TV and in films, but you don’t actually get the real deal.”
Michael admitted the morning was draining, but said he knew it was an important one for the students, and for himself.
“You could see that most of the kids were paying attention and were getting something out of it which was a good feeling to know you’re actually doing some good,” he said.
“As long as something comes out of it and Jess’s death wasn’t just another death in the statistics, then that’s what I was hoping to do.”
When asked if he would do more school talks like the one at Glenroy College, Michael smiled and nodded.
“Whenever I can.”
Source: ABC News