The day before school started, Alex Teka was found dead in the back garden of her Putaruru home. The 12-year-old had been the target of text bullies.

Since about July last year, Alex was bullied relentlessly by a group of girls not much older than her. Her mother Deanne Teka described it as an orchestrated campaign by email and text.

Over the summer holidays the playground bullying had culminated in a threat against her life.

Ms Teka says Alex had been accused of verbally abusing the sister of one of the girls. But she believes her daughter was the victim of "tall poppy syndrome".

"Maybe people need to understand you don't actually have to do anything wrong to be bullied."

One of the first to find Alex's body, ambulance officer Mechelle Wharton, remembers the impact. "I won't ever forget the job. It brought it home for me. When I got home from my shift, I sat my own four children down [aged 12 to 17] and had a talk to them."

Police say the death was not suspicious, and it has been referred to the coroner.

Alex's death was not an isolated case in Putaruru, population 3700. Since the end of October, three young people in the town have died in similar circumstances.

First, Alex's best friend's brother, a 20-year-old, died. In the New Year, about a month before Alex, a 16-year-old Putaruru youth died.

Alex also attended the funeral of her mother's cousin, who died in similar circumstances.

Although Ms Teka acknowledges that Alex's problems were likely to be more complicated than just bullying, she says the abuse played a major role in her unhappiness.

Signs that things were not smooth at school came midway through last year. Alex said she was unwell and spent a week away from school.

"Then when she was home for the second week she started to look not-sick. When I asked her about how things were, she showed me the emails and texts. They were threatening to beat her up at school and saying things like, 'You better not come to school because nobody likes you'.

"We had three options: go to the school; go to the police; or do nothing." They decided to approach the school.

Putaruru College was in its second year of operation, after the 2004 merger between the local intermediate and high schools. It had received an unfavourable ERO review and the principal at the time was on extended leave.

Teachers reassured Alex. She was invited to pick whatever class she wanted to be in. But that could not stop the bullying.

The school contacted the parents of the identified bullies, discussed bullying at assembly, and put out a newsletter to parents.

"It made it worse, they had the idea that Alex was a nark," Ms Teka says.

More nastiness came in the summer holidays, when Alex formed a relationship with a 15-year-old boy. A set of older girls began making threats, and said her boyfriend was cheating on her.

Alex had a rocky relationship with some girls. When she was "in" with a certain crowd she became moody, aggressive and demanding. When she fell out with the same girls, she withdrew and fell quiet at home.

That was a change in behaviour for Alex, normally a vibrant and sporty young girl. She was known for singing loudly around the house. She loved the theatre, drama, and English at school.

Ms Teka says she and Alex began discussing death last year, around the time her friend's brother died.

Alex had older siblings. Aana, 17, has returned to Putaruru College this year, and Daniel, 18, is in his first year of university study at Waikato.

"The way she [Alex] spoke to us, she was obviously confused," Ms Teka says. "My love is unconditional but there were things Aana could not tolerate, things that were hard to handle. When Alex died she felt terrible."

Daniel is also still trying to deal with his grief. He never attended Putaruru College. A top rugby player and academic, at an early age he won a scholarship to St Paul's Collegiate in Hamilton, where he boarded throughout his secondary school years.

The children's father, Bill, lives down the road in Tokoroa, having split from Ms Teka seven years ago.

Ms Teka says the option of taking Alex out of Putaruru College had been considered, but the closest school, Tokoroa High, had its own problems and was not an option. It was thought Alex could attend a Hamilton school, but that was not possible until the second term.

The new principal of Putaruru College, Karen Douglas, said there was a zero tolerance policy against bullying.

If a case was serious or prolonged enough, she would look to involve professional counselling or police.

One of Ms Teka's biggest fears in publicly talking about the harrowing ordeal is possible repercussions from the girls who bullied Alex. But she hopes that by speaking to the Weekend Herald six weeks after her daughter's death, some valuable lessons can be learned from the tragedy.

She met local MP Mark Burton yesterday to raise the idea of putting an age limit on cellphone users.

"He is taking my concerns to the Minister of Technology and the Minister of Education."

At Tararua College in the Wairarapa, pupil brawls and abuse of teachers over cellphones have been almost wiped out this year by a parent-driven ban on phones at the school.

This week Telecom apologised to a Wairarapa family for mishandling their complaints after that family was harassed for months by bullies.

Telecom spokesman Phil Love said victims of such abuse should log text messages and contact the Telecom Call Investigation Centre (0800 809 806).

But, says Ms Teka: "I feel that even though removing phones from schools is reducing the problem, it is like a Band-Aid - it is just covering something temporarily.

"I want to address how communities support bullying, not only the children being bullied, but also the bullies."

Are you a victim?

If you are being bullied, Youthline suggests:

* Tell a trusted person such as a teacher, friend, school counsellor.
* Don't accept that bullying is inevitable or acceptable.

To get help

Youthline (all NZ): 0800 376 633.
The Samaritans (North Island): 0800 726 666.
Lifeline (Auckland): 426 9105.

Telecom and Vodafone provide advice on combating text bullying and malicious phonecalls.

Both have bullying advice on their websites.