- Associated Press - Monday, October 3, 2016

MILFORD, Conn. (AP) - Days after her daughter was stabbed to death on prom day in a high school stairwell by a male student, a bereft Donna Cimarelli lay in the bed unable to sleep, when she heard her daughter say, “Mommy, rest because what we’re going to do is really big.”

Cimarelli didn’t know at that point how she could even live without her only child, Maren Sanchez, - let alone do “something big.”

Maren was Cimarelli’s greatest joy and “reason” in life - for everything she did, from earning a living at her massage therapy business, to providing a stable home and opportunities for Maren, killed April 25, 2014, at Jonathan Law High School.

But Maren held true to her word and now that “something big” has arrived.

Cimarelli, buoyed by the daughter who she said still always walks with her, recently announced the launch of the “Maren Sanchez Home Foundation,” a program to raise awareness beginning in elementary school about psychological and emotional control and manipulation with the hope that Maren’s tragic story can save lives.

She calls it the “Maren Sanchez Home Foundation,” partly because Maren sang the song “Home” at a high school talent show and won first place. The song was brought to the world by 11th season American Idol winner Phillip Phillips.

And also because home means, security, nourishment, safety, Cimarelli said.

“We want everyone to have those feelings of security,” Cimarelli said. “There were many warning signs (in Maren’s case) you don’t take seriously - why would you? They’re teenagers.”

Cimarelli said her daughter might be alive today had she known what to look for as Maren was pursued by her eventual killer.

Maren was the kind of girl, her mom said, who embraced everyone - gay, straight, black, white, typical, atypical. She was friends with the boy who would take her life, but he was “obsessed” with Maren, as Cimarelli would learn after that awful day when he reportedly killed her on prom day because she declined to be his date.

“If this could happen to someone like Maren who was confident, it could happen to anyone,” she said.

Maren was a free spirit who cut her own hair, threw together her own creative outfits, performed at every opportunity, volunteered at food banks, was part of the pulse at Jonathan Law High School and packed a lot of living into her short life.

“She made such an impact on so many lives. Maren accomplished a lot while she was here,” Cimarelli said.

They were friends, but Plaskon, also a junior, wanted more.

She heard after Maren’s death that she had become so uncomfortable with Plaskon that Maren once hid behind a board in a classroom, telling a fellow student, “Shhhh. I just don’t want to see him,”” When they asked why she was hiding.”

Cimarelli herself said she witnessed her daughter’s angst at home involving Plaskon, asking Maren more than once upon returning home from work, “What’s wrong?”

He had been threatening through text messages to kill himself, she said. On another occasion, Maren had been worried because he was outside in freezing weather without a coat on and complained he didn’t have a ride home.

Many of Plaskon’s actions, Cimarelli would later learn, were warning signs that are typically red flags of control and manipulation that can lead to violence.

“I wish I had asked more questions,” Cimarelli said. “You could actually save somebody’s life.”

They did come to report Plaskon’s behaviors to a guidance counselor five months before she was killed, but a lawsuit filed by Cimarelli’s attorney against the Board of Education and the city, alleges school officials failed to follow proper procedures that would have afforded Maren more protections. Neither the board nor the city have commented on the claim because of the pending litigation. The lawsuit also names Plaskon’s parents as defendants, claiming they didn’t get proper treatment for their son, whose lawyer, Edward Gavin, has said he was in a state of psychosis during the attack. Gavin has said the allegation that the Plaskons had anything to do with Maren’s death is “unfounded.”

The Maren Sanchez Home Foundation was unveiled by Cimarelli at the University of New Haven, where she was accompanied by Wendy Gibbons, vice chairwoman of the foundation and another foundation board member, Cimarelli’s lifelong friend, Ony Sierra, a UNH police officer.

The foundation’s aim is to give exposure and education to girls to recognize the warning signs of emotional and psychological manipulation and even training to physically defend themselves.

“We want to protect and help young people - raise awareness,” Gibbons said, noting part of the mission is to educate parents on having the conversation with children about manipulation and control.

“We don’t teach them in our schools and we don’t teach it at home.”

Gibbons said that she has witnessed social manipulation in her daughter’s life as young as 4 years old.

Although Cimarelli puts no limits on the where the foundation will go - the hope is it will become an international force - they’re starting with baby steps and right now calling upon sororities and other groups to become involved in fundraising and awareness. They are also looking for major sponsors.

Part of the mission is education in schools - the hope is to begin at the elementary level and up through college age.

Cimarelli has begun to author a series of books with a character modeled after Maren, who will be accompanied by a baby fox to represent Maren’s instincts. She said the children’s books are intended to teach young girls “hard lessons in soft ways.”

Also as part of the foundation’s programs, physical self -defense will be taught by Mixed Martial Arts Champion Nick Newell at his Fighting Arts Academy and that will begin soon when a two-day course is offered for free to four Jonathan Law High School students chosen by Cimarelli.

Sierra, who teaches self-defense at the university, said the focus is on escaping an attacker and students are taught that nothing is guaranteed.

Sierra visited the school stairwell where Maren was killed and said it is doubtful that she could have escaped if she had those skills, because she was pinned by Plaskon and a knife.

Sanchez was killed at Jonathan Law High School in the early morning hours just before school started on April 25, 2014. It was the day of the junior prom and it was reported she had turned down Plaskon’s invitation to the prom. Plaskon, now 19, is serving to 25 years in prison as part of a deal in which he pled “no contest” to the murder charge. Plaskon could be eligible for release after serving 60 percent of his sentence, which means he could be free in 13 years. State law mandates the judge and prosecutor consider the age of the youth at sentencing. Plaskon was 16 when Sanchez was killed. Sanchez’s parents have complained the sentence was too lenient.

Cimarelli’s foundation launch in the Bucknall Theater at UNH, and attended by hundreds of students, began with a home film of Maren, at age 7, on a school stage singing the Louis Armstrong hit “It’s a Wonderful World.”

The lyrics flow naturally and soulfully from a young Maren - her wide smile and missing teeth seemingly belying the maturity of the message that would come to define her life.

“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do? They’re really saying I love you.”

Next, the screen shows Maren as a teen playing the guitar and singing, “Home.”

Sierra opened the presentation and referring to Maren, said: “She was a special young woman no longer with us, but she continues to influence our lives.”

Cimarelli didn’t watch the film that night because it might have made her cry, she said, but she put out a strong call to action and took the stage for a conversation with a UNH professor whose specialty is unwanted pursuit and stalking.

“The blows that came to Maren on that dreadful morning were meant to silence her and to stop her loving heart from beating, to steal her voice and her infectious joy for life.” Cimarelli said. “But I am here to tell you that that was not accomplished.”

She told them that through the foundation, Maren’s voice “will be louder than it ever has been before and her heart will beat stronger than ever to help change the lives of young girls who are being psychologically , mentally and physically manipulated all over the world through my foundation.”

Cimarelli then challenged everyone in the audience to get involved, help a friend, be aware of your surroundings and peoples actions, and “to jump on board with the mission of the Maren Sanchez Home Foundation”

“I’d never change who Maren was for a million years. She was so accepting. She didn’t like to hurt people’s feelings,” she said. “I think you can never be nice enough to someone when they need a friend.”

But she said girls need to balance love with boundaries and assertiveness.

Sierra said that generally, a lot of red flag behaviors involving manipulation and control go unreported.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to hurt people’s feelings,” Sierra said. “With this age group they have to open their eyes.”

Leila Dutton, the UNH professor on stage with Cimarelli, said the best practice is to go with the directive often spoken of regarding terrorism: “If you see something, say something.” And to trust who you are and listen to your intuition when something tells you a behavior isn’t right, whether experiencing it or witnessing it.

The women spoke on stage against the backdrop of a slide showing warning signs of psychological and emotional manipulation, including: Curses at you, calls you names, gives silent treatment, keeps tabs, monitors what you do, blames you and more.

Part of Cimarelli’s vision for the foundation is to have girls role play scenarios so they can get in touch with feelings of manipulation.

Dutton said threatening to kill one’s self is a common manipulation tactic of those seeking control.

She said 28 percent of high school students experience psychologically manipulative behaviors from others and in colleges, its 75 percent, of which 24 percent are peers, not necessarily in a romantic relationship with the person and 15 percent experience unwanted pursuit or stalking.

Dutton urged girls to follow their intuition, which she said in the face of manipulation might feel like a nagging feeling of anxiety, a hunch, apprehension, suspicion, curiosity, gut feeling.

She said girls are socialized to be nice and conditioned to believe their gut feelings aren’t real.

Cimarelli said Maren didn’t know soon enough how to act on intuition that told her Plaskon was a danger.

Cimarelli, in an interview before the program began - her first time ever speaking publicly about her daughter’s death - said Maren “was my reason,” and still is. Not a half hour goes by that Cimarelli, a single mom, doesn’t think about Maren.

“My whole life revolved around Maren and her safety,” she said.

While Maren is no longer in this life, she shows her presence for all of it in many ways, said her mother, and foundation board members.

At the first annual “Peace, Love & Music from Maren,”event - a fundraising celebration of her life - a splotch of purple - her favorite color - appeared in a widely circulated photograph of the event. Friends and Cimarelli believe it was Maren making her presence and support known. The purple-ness appeared behind a microphone on stage in a wide shot of the field at Jonathan Law High School. The now annual event was held on the one year anniversary of Maren’s death.

Shortly after her death, a prom picture of her classmates in their prom dresses was taken at Laurel Beach green. The pictures had a mysterious fireball kind of image running through them and inside that was an animal figure that all decided was a fox with a tail. Friends believe that was Maren making her presence known and that led them to conclude the fox is Maren’s Native American spirit animal.

On another day, a mom pulled up in front of Jonathan Law High School, was having a tough day and looked down to see spilled water had taken the shape of a heart.

“Life doesn’t end when your body leaves,” Cimarelli said. “Everyone is here for the time they’re supposed to be here. When people’s time is up, it’s up.”

Cimarelli credits “the woman connection” - strong women who have come into her life,” with helping her to keep it together through the tragedy.

“I knew I was here for something. Maren is still my reason,” Cimarelli said. “She’ll be my reason until I take my last breath.”


Information from: New Haven Register, https://www.nhregister.com

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