By Eleanor Roy
“She had friends from Panama City to Lakeland, honey. She did not realize how much she was loved.”
Lakeland Police are investigating the suicide of a Stetson sophomore whose family says she left a note in the form of a poem describing the bullying she endured online from a man she knew for several years. Theresa Till, a business major at Stetson, was 19 when she took her own life on Sept. 1 in Lakeland, Florida.
Till’s case is still under investigation, according to Lakeland Police Public Information Officer Sergeant Gary Gross, and he was subsequently unable to confirm that Till was being cyberbullied.
Till’s family said they were not sure exactly what triggered her suicide, but after her death they learned from her poem she was still being harassed online and through the phone by the man. Deborah Cowan, Till’s grandmother, added that Till told her family that the man had stopped contacting her, but they think she was really just trying to keep them from being worried. “We knew he was doing this, but we thought he had stopped,” Cowan said.
“We didn’t find any of this out until after the event,” Don Allred, Till’s father, said.
Till, originally from Panama City, was studying business at Stetson, but was possibly considering changing her major. “The last thing I heard was she wanted to go into business law,” Cowan said. She was not sure exactly what Till would do after graduation, but said that she wanted to return to Europe and Asia at some point, where she had traveled in the past. “She was planning on going back to China and France,” Cowan said. “She just loved it over there.”
Allred also was not sure exactly what she planned to do after she graduated. “That’s a good question,” he said, laughing. “Making me broke!”
“She just loved Stetson,” Cowan said, and added that Till was really excited this year to live in the Stetson Cove apartments.
Till’s grandmother said she was a lover of art and animals, and always wanted to help the homeless. “She loved to help animals and the homeless,” Cowan said, adding that Till was concerned about where the extra food from Stetson’s dining services went and thought it should feed homeless people. “She was always taking in strays. She called them ‘throwaways.’” One of her favorite ‘throwaway’ adoptions was a cat named Donald Trump. Till named him because he looked like he was wearing a wig, Cowan said.
“She was always cheerful in the time I was around her,” Allred said. “Very brilliant.”
Both Cowan and Allred said the family plans to press charges against the man they believed bullied Till if they can, but Cowan is afraid he’ll just get a “slap on the wrist.”
A law that went into effect this year makes bullying via technology a misdemeanor in Florida, but it applies only to students in K-12 schools and focuses mostly on stalking. Cowan said it is too early to know if the family will get involved with cyberbullying prevention, but they have discussed it. “I think there should be different laws about this,” she said. “These are lives that are wasted from people’s words.”
Till’s case, while disturbing, is not all that uncommon. Two weeks ago, a 12-year-old jumped to her death at an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland after being cyberbullied by fellow students at her school. “Do they not realize what they are causing?” Cowan asked about people who cyberbully.
Cowan said that if there’s anything she hopes can come out of her granddaughter’s death, it’s to get the word out about cyberbullying adults. “If you feel that you’re being bullied, talk to somebody.” She said that universities should have not just counselors available for bullying victims to speak to, but students also, so they can feel more comfortable being open about their issues. “That’s what we’re trying to get out to the world,” she said. “There’s more going on than you think with cyberbullying, even at your school.”
Till is survived by her older sister, Jamie, 23, her mother Vicki Boykins, and a cousin, James, 22, who she was close to. “They were right there together and they were very close,” Cowan said of her grandchildren. She said that until James was about 10 years old, he actually thought that Till was his sister. Cowan said the family is holding up “pretty badly,” but hanging in there.
A funeral service is being held this weekend for anyone who knew her, and Cowan said everyone is invited back to her house afterwards to hear one of Till’s friends sing. “She had friends from Panama City to Lakeland, honey,” Cowan said. “She did not realize how much she was loved.”
The service will be held at the Lake Wales Women’s Club at 275 E. Park Ave. at 1 p.m.
A followup story will appear when more information about Till’s death becomes available.