Mom of slain Milford teen urges girls to follow their ‘instinct’ to avoid danger
If 16-year-old slaying victim Maren Sanchez had followed her gut instinct and others had spoken up about what they saw and heard, Maren might be alive today, the teen’s mother, Donna Cimarelli, told a group of students Friday at University of Bridgeport.
“I’m here to tell you there were steps that led up to this tragedy — red flags,” Cimarelli said, noting that learning to recognize such flags can be crucial in preventing school shootings and other tragedies.
She spoke in chilling detail about Maren’s ordeal and the shocking information she got from Maren’s friends after her death — information that might have prevented the tragedy.
The same kinds of red flags that were present in Maren’s case, Cimarelli said, were in play in last week’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. shootings that killed 17 people and wounded 16.
“They saw this coming with this kid,” she said, referring to Parkland shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz.
Law enforcement in that county had received at least 18 calls warning them about Cruz over the last nine years, including that he “planned to shoot up the school.”
There are signs “we see, but don’t understand,” Cimarelli said.
Cimarelli addressed students as part of the Her-Self Awareness project established by the Maren Sanchez Home Foundation, which she founded in her daughter’s memory to help others. In the last year Cimarelli has taught more than 300 girls and young women to look for the signs of emotional manipulation and control that often lead to violence, the kind of violence that took her only child.
In addition, Sanchez, has through the foundation’s Her-Self Defense classes, provided some 250 girls with self-defense class to ward off attackers. The foundation is looking for sponsors and prizes for its April 28 fundraiser, “A Magical Night in Havana,” to celebrate Maren’s Cuban roots. For more information about the fundraiser, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feeling Maren ever-present on the journey, Cimarelli is growing her reach every day, now looking to bring the programs to middle schools, high schools and more college campuses. She’s already appeared on many college campuses and at Trumbull High School.
Sanchez was fatally stabbed in the throat by fellow student Christopher Plaskon in April 2014 at Jonathan Law High School. Plaskon, who is serving 25 years in the killing, stabbed Sanchez in a school stairwell on the morning of junior prom night.
He had been angry with Maren for turning down his invitation to the prom.
The two spoke at her locker that morning of her killing and he said something to get her to the “dark stairwell,” Cimarelli said.
Cimarelli said she’s sure, “When Maren walked through those doors (to the stairwell) something didn’t feel right.”
There had been a history of “doesn’t feel right,” on Maren’s part regarding Plaskon, but she hadn’t been assertive enough, her mom said, because that’s not what girls are taught.
The thrust of Cimarelli’s message to girls and young women: “No is a complete sentence,” and “follow your instinct.”
She said girls are generally programmed to be nice and give reasons why they don’t want to do something. That was Maren.
Cimarelli wants other girls and young women to follow that intuition, because if Maren had cut Plaskon off sooner or refused to enter that stairwell, she might still be alive.
Cimarelli said Maren was a girl who was friendly to all, worried about Plaskon’s welfare and didn’t want to hurt his or anyone’s feelings.
Cimarelli said Maren and Plaskon had been casual friends, but he became obsessed with her and wanted to take her to the prom, which she declined. There had been stalking and emotional manipulation as well, Plaskon preying on Maren’s caring ways, Cimarelli said.
Cimarelli had a gut instinct all along something wasn’t right as well and told her daughter.
Cimarelli’s awareness workshops — which include the expertise of a psychologist and others in the field — spell out the scientifically established “pre-incident indicators” or red flags on the road to violence.
Maren’s case illustrates the slippery slope of manipulation and control to violence, Cimarelli said.
If Maren were more assertive in saying no all along maybe it would have cut things off sooner, Cimarelli told them.
Cimarelli said Plaskon, who lived about a mile and half away, would walk to her house and text her from outside, saying he was cold because he didn’t have a coat. Maren didn’t let him inside.
“Something deep inside my soul told me he was dangerous,” Cimarelli said.
At some point, Plaskon texted Maren to tell her he was going to hurt himself and go off his medication, Cimarelli said.
Maren didn’t want to be the one to betray a confidence, but at the urging of others, told a counselor at school about Plaskon’s claim of self-harm.
He went away for a week, and thanked her upon returning, Cimarelli said.
Although he knew she just wanted to be friends, a friend of Plaskon’s told Maren he was going to ask her to the prom with a dozen white roses, Cimarelli told the girls at University of Bridgeport. Maren told Plaskon, “no,” and he “went silent” — stopping his texts and emails, Cimarelli told the audience.
Two weeks after that, Maren was asked to the prom by the boy she liked. News quickly spread on social media, as it does with teens and soon the whole school knew.
Then came that horrible day of prom night when Maren was stabbed, dying instantly.
Her death shattered the city, the school community, and of course, Cimarelli.
After her daughter’s death, Cimarelli would talk to Maren’s many friends and learn there were signs all over the place, but the information didn’t get to the right people.
One friend told Cimarelli, “Everybody knew he was obsessed with Maren.”
Some students also knew Plaskon had a knife at school and a student later told Cimarelli that Plaskon said, “He, wait till tomorrow — prom day — it’s going to be epic.”
One of Plaskon’s best friends told Cimarelli that Plaskon allegedly had said after the prom refusal, “I hope she gets hit by a bus.”
And more chillingly, Plaskon allegedly asked his friend, “Do you know how long it takes for someone to bleed out if you stab them in the throat?”
Cimarelli explained to the audience of mostly women that those comments by Plaskon are called “leakage” in the intelligence world. Such leaks, sometimes unintentionally leaked, should be reported, as in “If you see something, say something,” Cimarelli said.
That same phenomena occurred with the alleged Florida school shooter, who allegedly indicated he was going to shoot up the school.
Cimarelli said Maren’s friends “will never be the same,” following her death, in part because of what they didn’t know they should have brought to someone’s attention.
“If they had said something, it could have been different,” Cimarelli said. “It’s never too soon to report something.”
One male student who attended Cimarelli’s presentation said he is from Sandy Hook, where 26 people, including 20 children, were killed in a mass shooting.
The man said he was in a high school class with the shooter, Adam Lanza, before Lanza stopped going to school and he has often thought about what he could have done to help prevent that if he had gotten to know Lanza better.
Friday’s presentation was brought to the campus by a close friend of Maren’s, Alia Mostafa, a nursing student and president of the school’s Collegiate Health Services Corp.
“I’m hoping the students get something out of it,” Mostafa, 19, said. “Young girls are afraid to be offensive because we’re not taught to speak up.”
Mostafa said Maren would be “in awe” of all the progress her mom is doing to educate girls and young women.
For more information about the fundraiser, email: email@example.com.