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Friday, April 20 Opinion

In the Suburbs / Milford tragedy raises stark question: Why can't 'no' be an acceptable answer?

Any parent should be able to empathize with the family of the late Maren Sanchez, a vibrant and generous teenager whose life was cut short on the day of her junior prom, allegedly by a knife-wielding longtime friend.

Maren's family suddenly faced a loss so painful it may never heal. Her parents' love, and their hopes and dreams for her died in a cold stairwell at Jonathan Law High School in Milford.

I was touched to learn that grief-stricken students canceled the prom, but dressed in prom attire in memory of Maren. And at a candlelight vigil Monday night, nearly 2,000 friends, classmates and parents filled the school's football field at a ceremony supporting Sanchez's family and sending a message that no child should die at the hands of a person who was a trusted friend. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy also attended to offer personal support to family and friends. And Maren's closest friends each spoke of the beautiful and caring person she was.

When students returned to school Monday, grief counselors and therapy dogs offered comfort and support to confused and distraught teens who were trying to process the horror of last Friday's tragedy. Therapy dogs can offer solace just through their giving nature.

Throughout this week, I thought about my own daughters, now adults, who attended Fairfield Warde High School in the late '80s and early '90s. While those years had been good ones with, thankfully, no acts of violence like this one in Milford, there were probably some rejections involving proms.

Let's be realistic. While any prom is supposed to be an evening of beauty and joy, for some, the prom or the evening may not meet our teenagers' expectations. Some relationships may end or be strained. Some couples may hit a rocky road.

But no kids we've known has ever attended a prom with a thought that he or she was in danger for turning down a date. Maren Sanchez probably never thought that her prom day would be her last day.

I decided to ask some of the 11th-graders I work with at Bridge Academy in Bridgeport how they felt about the death of Maren Sanchez. I was impressed by their insights and wanted to share some of them.

"The Maren Sanchez situation was one that shouldn't happen to anyone," a young man wrote. "I feel terrible about what happened, and I will never be able to feel her family's pain."

"This is a horrible thing," said another student. "I believe people need to learn how to take rejection better."

"The guy who did this can rot in jail for life!" a student said. And a classmate added, "With this tragic event, no one is safe. This young, 16-year-old girl had a harmless soul and she got her life taken away (allegedly) because of the ignorance of a boy who couldn't always get what he wanted."

"I think the situation in Milford was really disturbing and uncalled for," said another. --¦ It seems like no one is safe because people just kill anyone for no type of reason."

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Another classmate said, "It's sad to think that what should be such a joyous time turned into something so tragic. Every teen dreams of this day and prepares for it. To have this happen scars what should be a lovely event."

"I believe that the (suspect, if convicted) should do life in prison and not get sent to a mental hospital. ... If I was him, I would have asked myself what I was going to accomplish by doing this."

"Growing up, we are told that saying no is ok," said another student. "This situation was heartbreaking, because Maren didn't know she was saying no to her soon-to-be (alleged) murderer."

A last comment provided a really interesting perspective on this issue. "I feel emotions are one of humans' many flaws, because they cause problems mentally and physically."

This student's insights raise a very fundamental question, as far as I'm concerned. Have we as parents sent too strong a message to children that "no" is not an acceptable answer and requires some form of response, even if it is physical violence?

But my even greater concern is what we can do now in the future to curb this kind of violent behavior and protect other vibrant teens from having their lives snuffed out by student suitors who won't take no for an answer. I wish I had an answer, but I don't.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.