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What we can learn from the Ashlee Hyatt tragedy

A bench dedicated to Ashlee Hyatt, cared for and renewed almost daily by her friends, on Peachland's Beach Ave.
November 23, 2012 - 11:37 AM

Fred Kesler strolls through his neighbourhood on Peachland's San Clemente Ave., mere metres from the spot where 16-year-old Ashlee Hyatt was stabbed by a friend and bled to death nearly 1 1/2 years before.

A jury ruled Sunday that Hyatt died of a wound from a knife swung by a friend. Kesler couldn't help but remember the days when he taught school.


"The biggest weapon kids brought to school then were their knuckles," he says. "If they needed the next biggest weapon, they'd bring their friends. Things have changed now, I think."


The tragedy of Ashlee Hyatt's death is surrounded in the facts of that June night when and where she died. Two lawyers and a judge with all the facts will determine the degree of culpability. But while the court narrows its focus, we are all left with greater, more complex questions; an invitation, should we accept it, to have this conversation among youth, between parents and their children and parents to parents about how it got that far.


This wasn't gangland, it was Peachland. Two local girls—friends—at a party. One now dead, one now a killer.


Hyatt wasn't simply stabbed by a girl with a knife. Backwards in time from that moment, hundreds of decisions were made in a situation any young person could find themselves in. Too much alcohol, even among friends. Tensions rise. Sides are taken. Violence looms. Then what? Run? Fight? Get help? Even the odds with a knife?


Sarah MacKinnon is director for Kelowna's Downtown Youth Centre which works with high-risk youths. She can't speak to this case in particular, few can. But the pattern is there. The nature of violence itself, she says, is that it can happen in the blink of an eye and be fuelled by sudden emotion, booze or drugs and perhaps seated on a more foundational level. Childhood factors, such as physical or emotional trauma in the family home that can leave us without the necessary tools to appropriately respond to a given challenge.


"When tempers flare and things get heated and escalate and get out of hand, are you surprised in that situation that somebody might die? Probably not," she says. "It can happen very quickly and really easily, whether someone is using their knuckles or using a weapon. Once you're in that mindset, it's really hard to bring them down, to pull them back, to stop that escalation once it's been put in motion."


And perhaps too late. Even if it was simply intended to scare her opponents, an escalation in arms invites an escalation in consequences.


The scene on June 2, 2010 was an unsupervised party in which some teens, notably the one who was later convicted (she cannot be named by a court order), drank several shots of whisky from the bottle beforehand and continued drinking in the same manner at the party. A witness, Michael Baxter, said the girl was "super drunk" shortly before the incident. It was a recipe for poor decisions.


"It causes our inhibitions to be lowered," said Amanda Donaldson, a mental health clinician with the Downtown Youth Centre. "It causes our reactions to emotional situations to be not as astute as they would be. I would argue that it is a contributing factor, but not everyone who drinks becomes violent."


Added to that was the confrontation in which Hyatt and two others, according to testimony, were aggressively name-calling toward the convicted girl. The girl, upset that a boyfriend refused to talk to her about the kissing incident, was physically separated from him and he warned her to stay away. Later, the girl said she felt "ganged up on" and found herself fighting with Hyatt and one other girl.


So the situation was one of raw emotion, exacerbated by alcohol. But how does it jump to wielding a weapon? How does one make that decision? Is it the naivety of youth? Perhaps, but in Donaldson's experience, the answer may lay in the foundation of childhood. We learn by watching others. And if we see violence, we may repeat it.


"I see a lot of trauma," Donaldson says. "Lots of family history or some family history of substance abuse. Family breakdown. Poverty. Employment issues with parents trickling down to their kids, like the lack of education sometimes. We talk about societal oppressors. That goes with criminal behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown, trauma and abuse. Those are all things that impact that child growing up in the environment — the ability to adapt and function and cope."


Donaldson said a healthy, loving family is essential in a child's development and influences much about the way a child will react to conflict later in life. Trouble is, the same principle applies in reverse to parents who grew up the same way, becoming intergenerational. That's where the Downtown Youth Centre comes in; an institution to provide a more healthy environment and role models who understand, who can educate young people on the choices they make and the ultimate consequences.


"We talk a lot about demonstrating to the youth that we can go through conflict with each other and with them in a successful way and it will all turn out OK in the end without anyone having to have broken the relationship or hurt each other," says MacKinnon.


"We can mess up and get through that."


Just not this case, not for Ashlee, not for her killer, not with the consequences of escalation, however foreseeable it should have been.


John Sleeper


News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2012
InfoTel News Ltd

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