Maren’s mother turns tragedy into action
MILFORD >> Days after her daughter was stabbed to death on prom day in a high school stairwell by a fellow 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 how she could even live without her only child, Maren Sanchez, let alone do “something big.”
Maren, 16, was Cimarelli’s greatest joy and reason for everything she did, from earning a living at her massage therapy business, to providing a stable home and opportunities.
The girl was killed April 25, 2014, at Jonathan Law High School, where she was a junior.
Maren held true to her word and now that “something big” has arrived.
Cimarelli, buoyed by the daughter who she said always walks with her, recently announced the launch of the Maren Sanchez Home Foundation, with the goal 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.
Maren “was my reason,” and still is, Cimarelli said recently interview before a program at the University of New Haven. It was her first time speaking publicly about her daughter’s death. Not a half hour goes by that Cimarelli, a single mother, doesn’t think about Maren.
“My whole life revolved around Maren and her safety,” she said.
HOME MEANS SECURITY
Cimarelli calls it the Maren Sanchez Home Foundation, partly because Maren won first place singing “Home” at a high school talent show. And because home means security, nourishment, safety, she 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 she was pursued by her eventual killer.
Maren was the kind of girl, her mother 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. 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 Christopher Plaskon, also a junior, wanted more.
Cimarelli heard after Maren’s death that the girl had become so uncomfortable with Plaskon that she once hid behind a board in a classroom.
When asked why she was hiding, she told a fellow student, “Shhhh. I just don’t want to see him.”
Cimarelli said she witnessed her daughter’s angst involving Plaskon. She asked Maren more than once upon returning home from work, “What’s wrong?”
Plaskon had been threatening in text messages to kill himself, she said. On another occasion, Maren had been worried because he was outside in freezing weather without a coat and complained he didn’t have a ride home.
Many of Plaskon’s actions, Cimarelli would later learn, were typical red flags, warning 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 report Plaskon’s behavior 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 given 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 J. Gavin, has said he was in a state of psychosis during the attack.
Gavin, of Meehan, Meehan, & Gavin Attorneys at Law in Bridgeport, has said the allegation that the Plaskons had anything to do with Maren’s death is “unfounded.”
The foundation was announced at the University of New Haven by Cimarelli, accompanied by Wendy Gibbons, foundation vice chairwoman, and board member Ony Sierra, a UNH police officer who is Cimarelli’s lifelong friend.
The foundation’s aim is to help girls recognize the warning signs of emotional and psychological manipulation and defend themselves.
“We want to protect and help young people, raise awareness,” Gibbons said. Part of the mission is to educate parents about talking with children about manipulation and control.
“We don’t teach them in our schools and we don’t teach it at home.”
Gibbons said she has seen social manipulation in her daughter’s life as young as 4.
Although Cimarelli puts no limits on where the foundation will go — the hope is it will become an international force — they’re taking baby steps.
Right now they’re calling on 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 work up through college age.
Cimarelli has begun to write books with a character modeled after Maren, who will be accompanied by a baby fox to represent Maren’s instincts.
She said the books are intended to teach young girls “hard lessons in soft ways.”
Also, self-defense will be taught by mixed martial arts champion Nick Newell at his Fighting Arts Academy in West Haven.
That will begin soon when a free, two-day course is offered to four Law students chosen by Cimarelli.
Sierra, who teaches self-defense at UNH, said the focus is on escaping an attacker, and students are taught that nothing is guaranteed.
Sierra visited the Law stairwell where Maren was killed before classes began and said it is doubtful that she could have escaped if she had those skills, as she was pinned by Plaskon, with a knife.
Plaskon, now 19, is serving up to 25 years in prison as part of a deal in which he pleaded no contest to a murder charge.
He 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 at UNH, attended by hundreds of students, began with a home film of Maren, age 7, on a school stage singing the Louis Armstrong hit “What a Wonderful World.”
The lyrics flow naturally and soulfully from a young Maren, with a wide smile and missing teeth.
► “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 spoke about Maren.
“She was a special young woman no longer with us, but she continues to influence our lives.”
Cimarelli put out a strong call to action and took the stage for a conversation with Leila Dutton, 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.”
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,” she said.
Cimarelli challenged the audience to get involved, help a friend, be aware of the surroundings and people’s actions, and “to jump onboard 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 girls need to balance love with boundaries and assertiveness, she said.
Sierra said generally, many 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.”
Dutton said the best practice is to go with the directive: “If you see something, say something.” Trust who you are, and listen to your intuition when something tells you a behavior isn’t right, whether experiencing it or seeing it.
The women spoke against a backdrop of warning signs of psychological and emotional manipulation, including cursing, name-calling, silent treatment, keeping tabs, monitoring what you do, and blaming you.
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 suicide is a common tactic of those seeking control.
She said 28 percent of high school students experience psychologically manipulative behaviors from others; in colleges, it’s 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 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 mother, doesn’t think about Maren.“My whole life revolved around Maren and her safety,” she said. ◄ SIGNS OF MAREN
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 Peace, Love & Music from Maren, — 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 appeared behind a microphone onstage in a wide shot of the field at Law.
Shortly after her death, a picture of her classmates in their prom dresses was taken at Laurel Beach. The photos had a mysterious fireball kind of image running through 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 mother pulled up in front of Law, 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 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.”
For more information on the Maren Sanchez Home Foundation visit the website at http://www.marensanchezhomefoundation.org/.