When 14-year-old Sydney Dane Sellers committed suicide, her parents were stunned.
According to AL.com, they knew their daughter as an honors student with a great boyfriend, an altar server at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church, and a free spirit with eclectic taste in music.
The freshman at Pell City High School in Pell City, Alabama, hunted and fished when she wasn’t tinkering with her guitar, and she held a black belt in Taekwondo.
As months passed, however, her mother, Jennifer Sellers, uncovered her daughter’s secrets.
"I didn't know my child," Sellers, a children's rights attorney, told AL.com. "I knew the part of her that she wanted me to know.
"But as a parent, it never occurred to me there might be more. My child was a great person, but my child was being assaulted, and from more than one direction, by really evil people.”
When Sydney died, it was her first day as an altar server. Nothing seemed amiss. Sydney seemed happy when she went to her room while her mother made her favorite dinner: turkey breast, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and asparagus.
“When dinner was ready, I went to get her,’' Sellers said. "I found her hanging from her bed.
"Knowing my child the way I do, my first reaction was, 'Sydney, that's not funny.' Then I looked at her. Her skin was marbled, and I ran over to where she was hanging.”
Sellers couldn’t undo the belt around her daughter’s throat and she screamed for her husband, an Army veteran who is a captain in the Department of Corrections. He knew he wouldn’t be able to revive his daughter, but he tried to anyway.
The coroner pronounced Sydney dead on her bedroom floor, but Sellers didn’t allow responders to take her daughter’s body until a priest performed the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
"My husband and I, we were in complete shock,'' Sellers said. "It was like a bomb had gone off in our world. Our ears were ringing, and we couldn't see real well, and we couldn't talk. We just really didn't know what was going on except that our daughter was on the floor in her bedroom, dead, and it didn't make any sense.”
Sydney’s death was so shocking, Sellers requested her daughter receive a toxicology screening.
"I was a little curious," she said. "She was 14. My mother didn't know everything I did when I was 14.
"Her boyfriend is straight as an arrow, but just as a parent I wanted to know. There's a lot of stuff I'll never know."
As the family prepared for the chestnut-haired teen's funeral, the mortician requested that Sellers select a dress that was at least knee-length for Sydney to be buried in. Sellers was unaware that her daughter was struggling with self-injury.
"She had been cutting for at least six months before she died," she said. "From what I've been told by several of the kids, it's a lot more prevalent than parents and educators think."
Sellers also learned her daughter was being severely bullied and was being screamed at, called names and shoved.
The school claims they were unaware of the bullying, notes The Daily Mail.
Sellers requested that investigators return her daughter’s iPhone. Although Sellers was initially opposed to her daughter owning the smart phone, it was a gift. She discovered Sydney had installed Kik, an anonymous messaging service.
When Sydney died, she was talking to a stranger about erotic asphyxiation, in which participants restrict either their own breath or their partner’s breath for the purposes of sexual arousal.
The day after she died, Sydney received a message from a user who went by the name The Last Rat, who she had previously blocked. The message read: "I'm so sorry you did that. That's not what I meant to happen. I love you."
Sellers said the risqué interactions had no apparent effect on her day-to-day life.
"It didn't affect her school performance, it didn't alter her relationship with her boyfriend, and it didn't affect her relationship with us,” she said. “It was just a big secret that she did in the middle of the night.”
"And I don't know why, other than it was fun and she was 14 and hormonal," she added. "But I don't think she understood these were grown men and they were grooming her. They were moving into the 'I really want to meet you phase.’"
Sydney’s death was ruled a suicide and Sellers said she never received the results of a toxicology test. "My child was literally being attacked from two different huge parts of her life. School is like a third of a kid's life. What they do on social media is another third. The rest they are sleeping and eating. Literally two-thirds of her life was coming at her in a bad way,'' she said.
Sellers hopes parents take the time to learn more about their kid’s lives. "Go out of your way to know your kids. If you're a parent, I don't care how angry your kids gets with you, I don't care how private they think their lives should be, if they're under your roof, there's a limit to their privacy,'' she said. "If you're paying for that phone, there's a limit to their privacy, if they are not 18, there's a limit to their privacy. If you're supporting them in any way, there's a limit to their privacy."
Gretchen Skalka, Sydney’s aunt, urged caution. “Please be vigilant about securing the 'digital doorway' into the lives of your loved ones. Especially those most vulnerable among us,” she wrote on the family’s memorial fundraising page.
The family has since moved into a home that their daughter loved when they were house-hunting.