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Making Jamey's loss meaningful; Alyssa Rodemeyer is on a mission: Fight teen bullying

It returns to her in flashbacks the Sunday morning in late September when Alyssa Rodemeyer discovered her 14-year-old brother hanging in the backyard.

"Sometimes, in a second, like out of nowhere, I can relive the whole thing," she said.

It's been eight months since Jamey Rodemeyer died, eight months since the morning when Alyssa's life forever turned from its ordinary road.

Everything has been a blur since then -- Alyssa's advocacy of the Monster March youth rally, her appearances with talk show host Anderson Cooper, her speeches at vigils and rallies, her role in helping pop star Lady Gaga launch the Born This Way Foundation, and her latest call for tougher state anti-bullying laws.

But Alyssa, 17, remembers every detail of that September morning and the one thing she told herself the moment she found her brother: Try to save him, try to save him.

He would have celebrated his 15th birthday in March. Instead, the Rodemeyer house remained unusually quiet, as it has since Jamey died.

"It's never going to get easier," Alyssa said, wiping away tears as she sat in her Paramore rock band T-shirt and Winnie-the-Pooh socks. "In ways, it tears me down. But in ways, it makes me stronger."

Like her parents, Alyssa said, she's committed to making sure her brother has a anti-bullying legacy in death that he never had in life.

Jamey, a gay Williamsville North freshman, repeatedly complained about being bullied and regularly raised the topic on his Tumblr blog.

Amherst police said that Jamey was subjected to bullying in both middle and high school but that the reported incidents did not rise to the level of criminal prosecution.

Jamey was subjected to a lot of personal stress in his life, police said, both in school and out of school, and not all the stress was related to school harassment. Bullying was not the only factor in his death, they said, but it was one of them.

For Alyssa and her family, that's all that matters.

>Siblings and confidants

In early October, Alyssa sat perched on a stool with her guitar on Anderson Cooper's daytime talk show and sang her young heart out.

My baby brother's gone. Society's to blame, and I need a million ways to deal with the pain ...

They said I did all the right things when I found him, but it's still not the same because sometimes I feel I'm to blame. Maybe a moment earlier, and I could have saved him.

I can't turn back time. If I could, I'd give my life just to see you smile one last time.

Jamey and Alyssa were close; their worst battles were when Alyssa accused Jamey of "stealing" her friends by being the caring boy he was.

"He was such a likable person," she said. "That was always an issue."

Jamey confided in his sister often, but he became less forthcoming about his problems as he moved through adolescence. Alyssa recalled doing a lot of consoling when her brother complained about being picked on in fifth, sixth and seventh grades.

"He would tell me, 'They called me this name,' and I would tell him, 'They don't know what they're talking about. You're not dumb, and you're not fat. They're saying these things because they're feeling bad about themselves, and they're taking it out on you, but don't let it get to you.' "

Alyssa said her brother told her a year or two ago that he was gay. She also knew about her brother's blog. But in general, she said, they each respected the other's boundaries on "sibling privacy."

"As he got older, really, he kind of closed up a little bit more," she said.

Jamey often shared personal details of conflicts and heartbreak with the world on his Tumblr blog. But he hid that side of his life from his family, to the point where they all seemed convinced Jamey was happy. Alyssa said she certainly was.

She also was relieved when Jamey started attending the same high school, Williamsville North.

"If anything happened, I felt like I would know about it right away, and I would be able to do something about it," she said. "I guess that kind of gave me this, in hindsight, a false sense of security about everything."

The day before Jamey died, the family spent time at Three Valley campground in Holland. Alyssa recalled playing outdoor games with her brother and the two of them being happy.

That night, they were home emptying the dishwasher. Jamey told Alyssa about recent chats he'd had with his friends and friends he'd made less than two weeks into the new school year. All seemed well.

"I didn't see it coming," Alyssa said.

>Fighting for Jamey's cause

Jamey's parents, Tracy and Timothy, surprised many with their immediate public openness regarding Jamey's death and his anti-bullying message. Even more surprising was that Alyssa joined them.

When she sat across from Anderson Cooper a week after her brother's death, he marveled at her strength of character in speaking publicly so soon. Alyssa responded that she was determined to carry forward Jamey's anti-bullying message.

"No one deserves to feel like they're worthless," she said, "because no one's worthless."

She played her guitar and sang a song for Jamey on Cooper's daytime talk show the following week.

Shortly after Jamey's death, Lady Gaga announced the formation of the Born This Way Foundation, inspired by Jamey, one of her legion of fans. Alyssa and her parents gave Gaga a Hero Award for her efforts toward empowering youth at a Trevor Live benefit in December. The Trevor Project provides suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

Alyssa was the only teen panelist to later share the stage with the pop star at the foundation's formal launch at Harvard University in late February. She pulled no punches.

"With all due respect, what makes you think you have all the answers to change such a big problem?" she said.

Lady Gaga chuckled. "I don't have all the answers," she replied. "In fact, I have very few."

Then she added, "I would like for there to be many of you, Alyssa. I wish there were hundreds of you. You're a wonderful, wonderful girl. And my dream in the future would be to have someone like Alyssa to be in every school around the country."

That same month, Alyssa and other teens helped launch the Monster March Against Bullying event, slated for October. The event has been promoted as "the largest teen protest in history," culminating in a planned march of 10,000 teens through San Francisco, said founder Christi O'Connor.

So far, 23 families of bullied teens who committed suicide have joined to promote the event, she said; the Rodemeyers were the first.

"They are the founding family of the Monster March," O'Connor said.

>Strengthening state law

More recently, Alyssa and other New York teens have worked with O'Connor to get state lawmakers to tighten cyberbullying legislation under consideration in the State Legislature.

She and Brittany Lavonier, a Williamsville North graduate who said she became suicidal after merciless middle school bullying, were among the teens to suggest changes to cyberbullying bills being sponsored by Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, R-Clarence, and State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst.

The state cyberbullying bill now circulating in both houses would make bullying through electronic means a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail.

Though Amherst police investigated Jamey's death for two months and found evidence of bullying, they said the types of behavior witnessed by others would not have counted as misdemeanors under the law.

The new state bills are aimed at changing that. Had tougher laws been in place when Jamey died, Alyssa said, maybe the investigation into her brother's case would have turned out differently.

"I know they wanted to do more, but I think it's the laws that held them back, really," she said. "If you don't have a law for something, then you're not going to be able to accomplish anything with prosecution if there's nothing that says, 'OK, well, this is wrong.' "

Tougher laws would make it easier to go after the worst school bullies, she said.

"You can't put every jerk in jail, but you take away the leaders," she said, "and everyone below that will realize what's going on."

Corwin said that if the initial cyberbullying legislation gets adopted in the Assembly and Senate, she plans to propose an amendment that incorporates some of the teens' suggestions.

She mentioned two specifically: expanding the law to abusive communications disseminated through any electronic devices, including cellphones, and tougher penalties for repeat offenders.

Meanwhile, the entire Rodemeyer family is looking forward to the "Out of the Darkness" walk at noon May 12 on the Erie Community College North Campus, organized by a relative to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

>Leaving bitterness behind

These days, Alyssa said, she lives on hope -- hope that the message Jamey once tried to spread continues to catch on.

"In the first five months, I was a lot more bitter towards people," she said. "I would see certain people in the hallway and people that I knew that used to give trouble to someone, or give trouble to my brother. You see them, you're like, 'You did this!' "

But she since has come to terms with the fact that bullies are troubled kids dealing with their own problems.

"I think that opening your heart to someone is really the key to making a better world, so I've really taken that approach," she said. "I realize that I'm a lot more accepting of everyone."

Activism aside, Alyssa remains a teenager dealing with some typical things for a high school junior. She's looking into colleges, continues to play a slew of musical instruments and has a job teaching karate as a second-degree junior black belt.

She still misses Jamey, she said, but he'd be happy for her.

"I think Jamey would be really proud that people are trying to make a difference for him," she said, "and people like him."