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In wake of Tampa Palms killings, parents and teens discussing family violence

Julie Powers Schenecker’s explanation that her kids died because they were mouthy has hit close to many homes.

BRYAN THOMAS | Times

Julie Powers Schenecker’s explanation that her kids died because they were mouthy has hit close to many homes.

TAMPA — Amanda Fretz heard the news from her grandmother, so she turned on the television. She couldn't believe it: A mother confessed to the execution-style killings of her two teenage children.

The 17-year-old, a self-described mouthy student at Seminole High School, didn't worry that her own family might turn on her. "My parents are far too level-headed," she said.

"But it makes you wonder. I know kids who don't have the best relationship with their parents. Could it happen to them?"

As details emerge about the deaths of Calyx and Beau Schenecker, two athletic, high-achieving teens in Tampa Palms, the story is hitting uncomfortably close to home in some area households.

There are mothers who don't want their children to see the news. There are families so busy with grueling school, sports and tutoring schedules that they are barely aware of the event. And there are families discussing the tragedy, sometimes awkwardly, other times trying to make light of a subject that is anything but.

Beyond the brutality, there's the shocking filament of an explanation that a shaking Julie Schenecker gave police: the children had talked back to her.

"I guess it's like they sounded like any other teenager," said Mariel Bell, 18, of Riverview. "It's relatable." Schenecker called her children mouthy. "I get told that sometimes, too."

In St. Petersburg, 13-year-old Noelle Schneider saw the story on Saturday in the newspaper.

One of three siblings who are home-schooled, she is fascinated by current events and had already followed the story of Texas child killer Andrea Yates.

Her mother, Faith, was sitting with her on the living room sofa when the story came on the television news.

"I could see this expression that she gets when she is really serious about something," Faith Schneider said. "She looked at me and she asked, 'Why would a mom do something like that?' "

Noelle said she felt reassured after her mother ran through a list of possible factors: mental illness, stress in the family, the possibility that Julie Schenecker was too embarrassed to get the help she needed. "Now I understand it a little better," she said.

In New Tampa, Debbie Rubin's daughter covered the story for her school newspaper and was alarmed that Schenecker was able to buy a handgun so easily.

"It scared her to consider who may have guns and be plotting something terrible," Rubin said. "I think she was most disturbed that a mother could kill her own children." As they discussed the situation, "there was an uncomfortable moment, almost a strangeness between us."

Kathy Taylor of Sarasota is bracing for questions from her 12-year-old daughter. And she is certain some mothers are scanning the haunting images of a shaking Julie Schenecker, wondering, "Could that happen to me? Could that happen to you? Could that happen to anybody?"

The odds are overwhelmingly against such an occurrence, said Bryan Noll, a school social worker who was part of the crisis team this week at King High School, where Calyx was a pre-International Baccalaureate student.

Noll cautioned against overestimating the chilling effect the event might have on children, describing it as a temporary phenomenon.

Still, he found himself in conversations with teens who, for the first time in their lives, wondered if they were safe in their homes.

"I asked one of the kids, 'How many times have you had argument with your parent?' '' he said. "And how about your friends? For teenagers, that is developmentally perfectly normal. Then I asked, 'How often are you or your friend getting shot?' I was trying to make a point."

Overall, Noll said, kids are savvy enough to appreciate the extraordinary nature of the Schenecker situation. When the frenzy dies down, he expects life to return to normal, with the possible benefit that parents and their children will have had meaningful conversations about their points of conflict.

"Teenagers and their parents argue and fight all the time," he said.

You don't have to tell Fretz.

A writer for the youth-oriented tb-two* publication, she said, "I've pulled crazy stuff with my parents, what kid hasn't? I mouth off to my mom every day. I'm not going to sit here and say I don't call her 'stupid,' or curse, or what have you."

So she appreciated the way her mother broached the issue. It broke the ice.

"We were watching the news and my mom said to me, 'You ought to be real, real thankful that I am not a nutbag,' " Fretz said.

"I said, 'I really, really am.' "

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3356.

In wake of Tampa Palms killings, parents and teens discussing family violence 02/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 4:04pm]

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