Courtney Caouette, a Lewiston High School senior, stands in one of the school’s bathrooms where she has posted positive messages, such as the one in the background.

Barbara Benjamin-McManus and her Civil Rights Team at Lewiston Middle School made signs designating certain schoolrooms as “safe places.” Benjamin-McManus worked with students to find language that would be inviting for those who wanted to talk to a teacher about issues that were bothering them.

LEWISTON — The first messages were scrawled on sticky notes and lined along the top edge of the mirror in a Lewiston High School girls’ bathroom.

“Breathe. Everything will work out.”

“Stay strong.”

“You are loved.”

In the center of the glass: “LIVE.”

Within hours, a stack of blank sticky notes and a pen appeared at the sink, and the rest of the mirror began filling with messages: “Dream big.” “You’ll be OK.” “I’m here for you.” On the glass itself, where they couldn’t be missed:  “DREAM,” written in all caps with a dry erase marker. And “BE STRONG.” And “Just in case no one told you this today, you are beautiful.” 

Within a day, the slips of paper had been replaced with printed signs and not only in that one bathroom. They filled nine LHS restrooms, for both girls and boys.

“You walk in and sometimes you do see people crying in there or you overhear conversations and it’s like, ‘Wow, you’re having a rough day, you could really use some positivity or just a little boost,” said senior Courtney Caouette, who put up the first sticky notes with her friends and posted the printed signs last week.

Caouette didn’t know Anie Graham, the 13-year-old Lewiston Middle School student who was found dead in her bedroom on May 23, but Caouette has had friends who battled mental health issues and depression. And she’d dealt with some stuff herself.

A few weeks after Anie’s suicide, Caouette hoped the little messages might help someone.

“Just having that extra compliment that someone needs to hear in the day,” she said.

As the Lewiston community keeps trying to make sense of a tragedy involving deep adolescent depression, accusations of bullying and what Anie’s mother has called a “broken” mental health system, school leaders and students are taking steps to move forward. Notes on a mirror here, a new inclusive club there.

It’s unclear whether any of it will help, whether something as simple as a mirror covered in “You are loved” sticky notes would have made the difference for Anie, but they say they have to try.

“If we don’t do anything, how will we know that it wouldn’t have helped?” asked Barbara Benjamin-McManus, a Lewiston Middle School teacher and head of the school’s Civil Rights Team. “Let’s do it and see whether or not it will help.”

‘You doing this made me cry’

Anie was a seventh-grader at the middle school, but she was also known at Lewiston High School, where her older brother is a student. Her suicide stunned both schools and horrified the wider community. 

The day after her death, more than 30 middle-schoolers gathered outside LMS to protest how the school handles bullying and students in crisis — though the superintendent has since said there’s no evidence Anie was bullied. The next day, more than 200 people filled a community forum to talk about what might have driven Anie to kill herself and how to prevent other students from doing the same.

Later that week, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center reported a “sharp increase” in children brought to the emergency room for mental health issues. At the same time, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said he will improve his schools’ anti-bullying efforts and review staff protocols around suicide threats.

Another community forum is planned for Monday, this one on children and bullying on social media.

But since Anie’s death, not a lot has changed in students’ day-to-day lives. Mourning continues.

“These past couple of weeks there’s been a lot of reflecting and just a lot more thinking about bullying and also just mental health things going on,” Caouette said. “I think the high school could really use some positivity.”

She and her friends posted the first sticky notes and signs in a girls’ bathroom at the high school last week. People quickly noticed. 

“There were, like, girls taking pictures of it. One girl messaged me on social media and she said, ‘You doing this made me cry,'” Caouette said.

Afterward, she realized the impromptu notes could be mistaken for vandalism. She approached Principal Shawn Chabot, thinking she might get in trouble, he might make her stop.

He told her to keep it up.

“When a student takes the initiative, when people are hurting, to try to be kind and remind both adults and students that people do care about each other and they are important people and they are good people, we shouldn’t be passing out consequences,” Chabot said. “We should be passing out congratulations and thank-yous.”

LHS staff had been worried about students since Anie’s death. Suicides can cluster in a community. They didn’t want another teen following Anie’s path. 

As staff worried about students, Chabot worried about staff. They had been struggling since Anie’s death, too, as community members blamed Lewiston teachers and school administrators for not doing enough to help Anie. Even though they were in a different school, they felt the criticism.

“I get that people have to put blame. That’s how you rationalize … But it hurts. It hurts a lot,” Chabot said, choking up. “If they see how much time and energy and effort the adults, not just teachers but adults in the building, put into our kids and how much they love them — look at me, I’m getting emotional — they would never, they wouldn’t say that stuff.” 

He thought Caouette’s messages were important.

“Courtney’s example is a perfect example of that, of taking care of each other like a family,” Chabot said.

Her bathroom notes also caught the attention of LHS counselor Vicky Wiegman. She placed the blank sticky notes and pen in the bathroom to encourage more.

“Any opportunity that we have to get some positive, caring messages out there, I don’t think that time’s ever wasted,” she said.

Wiegman will take it one step further. This upcoming school year she will post more permanent, framed messages on the backs of bathroom stalls.

“In a way that’s private, they don’t have to be seen stopping and reading it,” she said.  

‘A safe place’

Lewiston Middle School already tried uplifting messages. Earlier this year, before Anie died, the Student Council placed sticky notes with a positive comment or quote on every one of the school’s 800 lockers. If Anie saw hers, it didn’t help. 

Since Anie’s death, Benjamin-McManus and her Civil Rights Team have added their own positive messages to the school’s diversity wall, asserting that “everyone has a place here” and imploring, “Be kind to others.”

But they’ve also taken a new approach. This week the team designed door signs that proclaim each specific classroom to be “a safe place.”

“It means it doesn’t matter where you are in the school, if you’re having a problem or you just need to step in for a moment, you don’t have to know the teacher,” she said. “It’s a safe place for you to just go in for a moment.”

Benjamin-McManus is also forming an “Affinity Club,” a group for students who feel different or find themselves somehow in the minority because of disability, ethnicity, language or other attributes. She hopes the club will help give disenfranchised students a voice and teach them to advocate for themselves, something she fears bullied students aren’t doing enough. 

“Whether it’s in the school or the larger community, when something happens, you always wonder, ‘Is there something else I could have done?'” Benjamin-McManus said. “I will never have the answer to that, but … what else could I do in the school to make a difference for children like Anie and others?”

She believes the efforts will help prevent another suicide. At least they have to try.

“I would hate down the road to say, ‘Oh, God, I wonder if we had done the Affinity Club, would that have helped?'” she said. “All we can do is try. And that is what I think is asked of anyone, to try to do something positive.”

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Courtney Caouette, a Lewiston High School senior, is reflected in a mirror in one of the school’s bathrooms where she has posted positive messages, such as the one in the background.

Using sticky notes and dry erase markers, students last week scrawled positive messages on a girls’ bathroom mirror at Lewiston High School.

“If we don’t do anything, how will we know that it wouldn’t have helped?”

— Barbara Benjamin-McManus, a Lewiston Middle School teacher and head of the school’s Civil Rights Team

“There were, like, girls taking pictures of it. One girl messaged me on social media and she said, ‘You doing this made me cry.'”

— LHS senior Courtney Caouette, about positive messages posted in the school bathrooms

Upcoming community discussion:

What: Forum on children and bullying on social media 

Where: Lewiston High School gym

When: 7 p.m. Monday, June 12

Teen suicide in Maine

Deaths ruled suicide by the Medical Examiner’s Office for people 17 and under, by year:

2012: 5

2013: 7

2014: 8

2015: 7

2016: 7

2017 (to date): 4

Worried about yourself or someone else?

Maine Statewide Crisis Line, 1-888-568-1112

Tri-County Mental Health crisis outreach, 783-4680

St. Mary’s Psychiatric Emergency Department, 777-800

National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255


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