RIDGE FARM, Ill. -- A line of cars rolled slowly past Ridge Farm Elementary School Wednesday and into Crown Hill Cemetery for the burial of 10-year-old Ashlynn Conner.
Many of Ashlynn's classmates stood clutching powder-blue balloons beside her casket. Tugging against tiny hands in a chilly afternoon breeze, each balloon carried a note to the fifth-grader, who was found dead Friday in an apparent suicide her loved ones say was prompted by years of bullying by schoolmates and neighborhood children.
The details of the fifth-grader's death have thrust this downstate hamlet into the national spotlight -- and generated local debate -- over how best to protect children from schoolyard taunting that goes too far.
"My note says, 'I don't think you were mean, you were a really good person,"' said 11-year-old Olivia Tucker, whose mother used to baby sit for Ashlynn before the Tuckers moved to nearby Danville.
"I think it was really mean, what happened to (Ashlynn). I thought maybe we could write her a little note."
With no stoplight and nary a church large enough to hold the 300-plus mourners, Ridge Farm, population 900, is among the smallest of a string of towns among the fields of corn-stubble and fallow soybeans along Illinois Highway 150.
Ashlynn's death has been the talk of the town, not least because her family has claimed her death came after she repeatedly told her teachers about taunting from girls at school.
Kevin Tate, superintendent of Georgetown-Ridge Farm Unit No. 4, wouldn't comment on allegations of bullying, deferring to the police investigation.
"We've been very cooperative (with police). We're waiting to see what they say," he said.
Tate said counselors were provided for children and staff throughout the district of about 1,150 students. Ashlynn was one of 23 children in her fifth-grade class at Ridge Farm Elementary, where she was on the honor roll, Tate said. Her sister is an eighth-grader in the district.
Her death has "devastated" the community, said Tate, who lives two doors down from Ashlynn's family. Classes at the school were canceled Wednesday so students and staff could attend the funeral.
Authorities said Ashlynn's sister found the girl unresponsive Friday night, hanging by a knitted scarf from the rod in her bedroom closet.
A day earlier, Ashlynn returned home in tears after being taunted by girls at school, and asked to be pulled out of classes to be home schooled, family said. Her mother told her they would meet with the school principal on Monday.
Vermilion County Coroner Peggy Johnson said Ashlynn died of strangulation, but she cannot determine whether the death was a suicide until the sheriff's investigation is done and her office has completed further tests.
A Chicago Tribune reporter who visited Vermilion County Sheriff Patrick Hartshorn's office Wednesday was told the sheriff would not be available, and numerous phone calls were not returned.
Hartshorn told a local newspaper that investigators are treating the case as a suicide and continue to investigate the family's allegations of bullying.
"We've interviewed the friends supposedly involved in it," Hartshorn told the Danville Commercial-News in a story published Monday. "We haven't uncovered anything so severe that it would result in someone taking their own life."
Ashlynn had become a target for some of her classmates years ago, said 19-year-old cousin, Heidi Paree. Paree points to a time when Ashlynn had gotten a short haircut, around the time tryouts began for cheerleading at youth football games.
"They said she looked like a boy, 'Who's that boy over there?' That kind of thing," Paree said. "It really upset her."
Ashlynn's brother, Alex Smith, 19, said he was teased when he was a student at Ridge Farm Elementary, and he had suffered from a deep depression and had suicidal thoughts. He couldn't say whether his sister might have felt the same way.
"She would say, 'I want to kill myself' sometimes, when she was mad at her sister," Smith said. "But I never thought she would attempt it."
By all accounts, Ashlynn was a sensitive girl. She hoped to become a veterinarian, because "people hurt animals, and she wanted to protect them," Paree said. Ashlynn lived with her mother, older sister, grandmother and a rotating cast of cats she found wandering the neighborhood.
"There were no stray cats to Ashlynn," said her uncle Lucas Conner. "There were her cats and cats who needed her help. She just had a great big heart."
Monday, Ashlynn's family attended a special school board meeting and claimed Ashlynn had been told by her teachers she was being a "tattle-tale" when she complained to them about being harassed by classmates, residents said.
The line outside the funeral home where Ashlynn's visitation service was held Tuesday stretched down the block, and funeral directors moved her funeral service Wednesday to Bethel Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the area.
Tate said his district has a bullying policy that boils down to three steps: tell the bully to stop; if that doesn't work, walk away; if that doesn't work, tell a teacher.
"The community will pull together after the shock is over, and if there are problems those problems will be taken care of," Tate said.
Warning signs that a child might have suicidal thoughts
Suicide by young children is extremely rare, but experts say parents and teachers need to be aware of the warning signs in children suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts.
"In younger children, signs of depression can be due to both environmental and biological reasons," said Dr. Louis Kraus, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "For a 10-year-old to think about this ... it had to be something that was in her thoughts for a period of time.
"School systems need to be keenly aware that younger kids can be depressed."
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teens and sixth for kids ages 5 to 14, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Another study found that about 250 to 300 children in the younger group die by suicide each year.
Experts say warning signs include change in eating and sleeping habits, withdrawal from friends and family, and making "final arrangements" such as giving away prized possessions.
Bullying often plays a role in child suicide, and schools are responding with stricter policies and procedures to protect victims, experts say.
(Grimm reported from Ridge Farm and Georgetown; Schlikerman reported from Chicago. Staff writer Bonnie Miller Rubin wrote the material in the breakout box.)
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