Emmie Brant, 15, is by all measures, a parent’s dream.
She earns all A’s, has scores of close friends, and has never warranted as much as a call to the principal’s office for misbehaving.
Her mother, Iola High School guidance counselor Melissa Stiffler, knows a thing or two about how teenagers think.
For the past 23 years she’s worked helping high school students, and is in her fourth year at IHS.
Their idyllic home life was thrown into a lurch a week ago Wednesday, when Emmie, a freshman at IHS, left her Woodson County home in the dark of night.
She and a 14-year-old friend were headed to California.
The intrepid, impulsive pair made it to the outskirts of Flagstaff, Ariz. — 1,248 miles away — in a span of 18 hours, before sideswiping a tractor-trailer unit on Interstate 40.
Not only did they come away unscathed from the accident, but it also may have saved their lives.
What confounds every adult, of course, is what would prompt such a youth to head out cross country with little more than the clothes on her back?
Stiffler has spent the past eight days asking herself that very question.
She hopes her answers will serve her family — and others.
While Stiffler admits culpability for several “mistakes” she had made in relation to her daughter, she also lays blame on the prevalence of cell phones.
“I know it’s simplistic to blame a cellular gadget for a young girl to run away,” she said. “I know the web is tangled and weaves back to more than just technology.
“But I also know this played a huge role in my daughter’s decisions on that dreary day. And it was a wake-up call to this mom who thought these devices were really harmless. I have spent the past 23 years of my life working with high school students. This ‘teenage mindset’ is very familiar to me.”
In the aftermath, Stiffler penned a letter to the Register, “as a warning to others to be smarter than me.”
“I’m writing this letter from the heart of a mother who loves her daughter and desperately wants to warn parents to wake up,” Stiffler said. “I wish for no other parent to wake up in the night and find their daughter gone.”
STIFFLER says her first mistake was giving her daughter a cell phone at too young an age.
Emmie’s first phone came when she was a fourth-grader.
The phone would be used to call her parents in case of an emergency.
Instead, it quickly became an avenue to remain in constant contact with her friends, and other acquaintances.
“As I have spoken with her friends the past few days I have discovered that every one of them — every single one of them — received a cell phone before they were in the sixth grade,” Stiffler noted.
And with more sophisticated models on the market on a nearly daily basis, many of the friends — Emmie included — became increasingly tech savvy, while remaining emotionally immature.
“The crucial age for brain development is from ages 12 to 15,” Stiffler explained. “The brain is revving up. It’s like a sponge.”
But one of the last portions of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, the part that rationally analyzes risk behaviors. That part of the brain usually isn’t developed until a person is in her 20s.
“Not that that’s an excuse,” Stiffler said. “But it’s the danger of technology. It makes the world seem small and safe. California doesn’t seem that far away. Everybody talks to everybody on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and everyone is ‘friends,’ when you and I know that isn’t the case.”
“I THINK I saw red flags about a year ago,” Stiffler recalled. “Emmie was very dependent upon her phone, almost to the point she didn’t think she could live without it.”
With scores of seemingly close friends, her daughter had developed as Stiffler described a “herd-bound” mentality.
“My husband grew up around horses,” Stiffler explained. “Horses that are put out to pasture with other horses for long periods of time become ‘herd bound’ or ‘buddy sour.’ They form strong emotional attachments and become anxious and distressed when they are pulled away from the herd.”
That was where Emmie’s friendships enter the equation.
“My daughter grew up with an attachment to her friends through her cell phone,” Stiffler said. “She went to bed with it in her hands texting her friends. She woke up in the middle of the night with her friends texting her. This has been her pattern since fourth grade. She learned her validation in the people she connected to online.
“Even if those people were in California.”