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April 26, 2010 12:55 PM
Nearly a year ago, the Erie County Coroner’s Office ruled the death of 10-year-old Melquan A. Jackson a suicide. His family considers it a tragic, unpredictable accident. Melquan’s death has left a deep hole — and revealed a mother’s strength.
Three weeks before he died, Melquan A. Jackson turned 10 years old. He liked video games, Spider-Man, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Incredible Hulk.
His full name was Melquan Amir Ali Jackson. His family and friends called him “Melly Mel.” He celebrated his birthday on April 21, 2009.
He played in his neighborhood, in the 300 block of East 25th Street, near Parade Street in Erie. He was a third-grader.
Melquan displayed the outward signs of being a kid: scrapes and bruises from riding his bike and his skateboard.
What was on his mind remains a mystery.
Since January 2009, he had been enrolled in an Erie School District program for young students with behavioral problems, including concerns about anger management and conflict resolution.
But Melquan had done so well that he was ready to leave an alternative school by the end of the academic year.
“He had earned his way out,” said his principal, Kim Olszewski.
On a sunny afternoon, on May 10, Melquan was, as usual, outside. His mother had told him not to go to a friend’s house. He went anyway.
His mother got him and returned him home.
He went upstairs to his bedroom, surrounded by his toys. Melquan never walked out.
The Erie County Coroner’s Office ruled Melquan’s death a suicide. Authorities believe he is the youngest suicide victim in county history.
His family considers his death a tragic accident, in which Melquan acted suddenly without knowing what he was doing. His death, by any definition, defies understanding.
How can anyone explain it?
“I’ll never know why my baby left me,” said Melquan’s mother, Jennifer L. Jackson, 32. “It weighs on me a lot, to understand why my Melquan did this. He was only 10. Why would he do this?”
Jackson recalls her son’s smile, his love of gospel music, his promise that he would buy her a mansion someday.
“His personality,” she said, “was out of this world.”
In response to what happened to her son a year ago, Jackson wants other parents to know how critical it is for them to stay connected to their children. Three sisters and a brother survive Melquan.
“It doesn’t matter what your skin color is, no matter what town or city you live in — it is out there,” Jackson said. “Talk to your children, see what is going on with them. Make your children talk to you. Let them know that you love them. “Pay attention.”
In 2009, the Erie County Coroner’s Office ruled that 37 deaths were suicides. The victims were mostly male, and predominantly middle-aged – an average of 47 years old, according to a report Coroner Lyell Cook released in March.
The county’s 50-year average for suicides is 29 a year. As in years past, some of the suicide victims in 2009 left evidence of their deep troubles.
Nineteen percent of them had alcohol in their systems when they died. Twenty-four percent had used drugs. Nineteen percent left a suicide note.
After Melquan, the youngest suicide victim in 2009 was a 19-year-old man who ran in front of a train in September. The coroner’s report said he had been on medication for depression and a bipolar disorder.
Another man, 24, dejected after an argument, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound the morning of New Year’s Day. His last known words, according to the coroner’s report, were “I can’t do anything right.”
One woman, 39, with a family history of suicide, filled her garage with automotive exhaust in May 2009.
Another man turned a handgun on himself in April 2009, six days after he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, and a doctor told him nothing could be done to improve his health. The man was 78.
Then there is the case of Melquan Jackson.
Never before, the Coroner’s Office said, had investigators in Erie County determined suicide to be the cause of death for someone so young. Cook, the coroner since 2000, could not recall a similar case. Neither could Cook’s predecessor, Merle Wood, the coroner for 40 years.
Melquan had no known health conditions, the coroner’s report said. He was not known to have threatened suicide.
He left no note when he died on May 10 — Mother’s Day.
“He was vibrant that day,” said Melvin Starks, the fiancé of Jackson, Melquan’s mother. “He was full of life.
“So I don’t understand how the situation came to a tragic loss for the family. It was a loss of innocence.”
Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, with about 33,000 victims a year.
Among children, suicide is very much the exception. A total of three 10-year-olds died as the result of suicide in the United States in 2006, or fewer than one per 100,000 people in that age group, according to the most recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of suicides increases as children become adolescents and teenagers. The rates are 1.3 per 100,000 people for children 10 to 14; 8.2 per 100,000 for teenagers 15 to 19; and 12.5 per 100,000 for young adults 20 to 24, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, based on 2006 CDC data.
The significant number of annual teen and adult suicides allows researchers to examine trends and study causes.
“Ninety percent of people who kill themselves have a psychiatric disorder,” said Paula Clayton, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, based in New York City.
Because so few children die as the result of suicide, Clayton said, determining general causes of juvenile suicide is elusive. The warning signs can be even harder for parents or other adults to detect.
“How would you know?” Clayton said of the suicide of a 10-year-old. “It is unusual enough that it is hard to predict.
“It is a sudden, unexpected outcome.”
Can a 10-year-old even intend to take his own life?
A similar question has come up elsewhere, with the death of a 6-year-old girl in McMinnville, Ore., southwest of Portland.
Samantha Kuberski, a first-grader, was found dead in December, two days before her seventh birthday.
A state medical examiner ruled her death a suicide by hanging, citing statements the girl, who investigators said was well-liked and well-adjusted, made before her death.
The police who investigated are challenging the ruling. They contend it was an accident.
“The disagreement is a little more philosophical than it is material to the case,” McMinnville police Capt. Dennis Marks said, according to the Associated Press.
“It’s not that we disagree with the mechanics of what happened. It’s the finding that a 6-year-old could form that kind of intent.”
If the ruling stands, Samantha would be the youngest person in Oregon history to have committed suicide.
In the case of Melquan Jackson, the Erie County Coroner’s Office is unequivocal. The office ruled that, according to Erie police interviews, the evidence at the scene and an autopsy, Melquan used a nylon belt to intentionally hang himself from the clothes bar in his bedroom closet, where he was found.
The family called 911, and an ambulance rushed him to the emergency room at Hamot Medical Center. He could not be revived.
“In my opinion,” Deputy Coroner Korac Timon, who handled the investigation, wrote in the coroner’s report, “the death was the product of a suicide.”
Timon reported that Jennifer Jackson, Melquan’s mother, told investigators that her son “had a history of behavioral problems at home and school.”
The coroner’s report recounts Melquan’s activities before he was discovered in his bedroom. It tells of his unauthorized trip to the friend’s house and his return.
“He was spirited and stubborn,” Timon said in an interview.
Lyell Cook, Timon’s boss, said the suicide ruling is grounded in all the circumstances of the case, and not only in what Melquan might have wanted to do.
“We never use supposition when it comes to suicide,” he said. “It must be fairly diagnosed as a suicide for us to rule.”
He said a 10-year-old child today, with access to the Internet and other media, would be expected “to be more familiar with death.”
“It is a sad fact of life,” Cook said. “Ten or 15 years ago, we would have looked at it a little differently. But we have to rule on the evidence we have.”
As any parent knows, children often act without thinking. That type of behavior can extend to suicide, particularly for children who suffer from psychiatric disorders.
“Young kids are more impulsive, and impulsivity is associated with suicide,” said Clayton, the medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Age 10 is about the youngest a child can be to commit suicide because of motor-skills development, said Martin Drell, M.D., a professor of community psychiatry at Louisiana State University, where he also heads the department of infant, child, and adolescent psychiatry.
Drell said the inability of a child to see beyond the immediate moment can contribute to suicidal behavior.
“Part of thinking it through is having a sense of the future, a sense of time — that feelings come and go, these things shall pass, the sun will come out tomorrow,” said Drell, president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
“The younger you are, the less you are able to think in the abstract. One thing you think about in the abstract is time.”
Jackson believes Melquan “was not fully aware of the consequences” when he acted.
As for the official ruling of suicide, “that’s the coroner’s job — he has to rule on certain things,” said Starks, Jackson’s fiance, who was home when Melquan died.
“But the reality of it is, it was a tragic accident,” said Starks, 39. “It was youthful play that caused a tragic loss.
“Nobody understands it. Nobody knows but Melquan and God.”
Melquan’s father also is from Erie, but Melquan lived with his mother. He was close to his grandparents.
In her grief, Jackson has received support from Bishop Dwane Brock, founding pastor of Victory Christian Center of Erie, 1129 Pennsylvania Ave. Melquan admired Brock; he said he wanted to be a football player or a bishop when he grew up.
“I have buried so many kids who have died violent deaths — drugs, murder — a whole collage of negative activities,” said Brock, 51. “But this was the youngest.
“Here is a young man who committed suicide, and I don’t think it was intentional on his part,” he said. “He was not a depressed child. He was not a troubled child. It was just a spontaneous act on his part that went beyond his control.”
Brock praised Jackson’s strength. He called her “a good mother — very protective of her children.”
“This was just an unfortunate, unpredictable situation that transpired,” he said. “I remember telling Jennifer not to let this haunt her, because it could haunt her for the rest of her life.”
Kim Olszewski remembers Melquan.
She was one of the people who, besides Melquan’s mother, saw him most.
She was his principal at the P.E.A.C.E. School of Excellence, an alternative-education program housed at Wilson Middle School, 718 E. 28th St.
Melquan attended Lincoln Elementary School, 831 E. 31st St. But at the start of 2009, he was enrolled at P.E.A.C.E., or Providing Educational Alternatives for the Children of Erie.
He joined 50 or so other students, in grades three through eight, who were having severe problems at their home schools. The highly structured P.E.A.C.E. school tries to change behavior through intensive monitoring from teachers and specialists.
“We’re more therapeutic, more diagnostic,” Olszewski said. “We try to work with the kids on what I call, ‘Fix it.’
“Our goal is to get them to fly, to get them out of here, to get them back to their regular classrooms.”
Confidentiality rules prohibit the Erie School District from going into detail on Melquan’s case, officials said. But Assistant Superintendent Jay Badams, who reviewed Melquan’s file, said Melquan received virtually all the available services at the P.E.A.C.E. school.
The school staff, Badams said, followed “all the policies and procedures to keep the family informed about Melquan’s progress.”
“It is a horrible thing,” Badams said. “It is unimaginable, both as a school administrator and a parent.”
In the weeks leading up to his death, Melquan had moved forward. His behavior had improved so much, Olszewski said, that he was ready to return to Lincoln.
“The fact is,” she said, “he did well here.”
When Olszewski heard the first reports of a 10-year-old boy killing himself near East 25th and Parade streets, she did not consider the victim might have been Melquan Jackson.”It shocked us,” she said.
On a recent day, school had just let out. Jennifer Jackson soon was surrounded by her children.
“My babies,” she said. “I look at it as God gave me them for a reason. We have each other.”
The family remembered Melquan on his birthday, which was Wednesday. He would have been 11.
“I am never going to forget him,” Jackson said. “He is always going to be a part of me because he came from me.”
“Every day is a struggle,” she said. “Words can’t even explain.”