Bullying takes place in every school and playground in our country. But what some parents see as a typical challenge of growing up is becoming more serious than ever before.
On April 6, 2009, 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover's family says he hanged himself after enduring bullying. Just 10 days later, 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera, another victim of bullying, took his own life, according to his family.
Carl's and Jaheem's mothers are speaking out in hopes that what they say happened to their sons will never happen to another child. "Today begins a national conversation on bullying," Oprah says.
Carl Walker-Hoover's mother, Sirdeaner, describes her son as a bright student and a happy kid. "He loved the Lord. He was Christian. He was saved," she says. "He was a happy-go-lucky boy."
Sirdeaner says Carl started having problems in junior high. "They were calling him gay," she says. "I told him to talk to the teachers, talk to the administrators at school, and let them know what was going on."
Carl's family says he was verbally teased every day. "He was so afraid that he ate lunch with a guidance counselor," she says.
Sirdeaner says she took action as soon as she realized what was happening. "I joined the PTO. I sat in on a class. I even set up an appointment with Carl to meet with the guidance counselor once a week," she says. "I don't know what else I could have done."
On April 6, 2009, Carl came home after an upsetting incident at school. "This is what Carl told me. He said that his backpack had hit the TV stand and that the TV stand hit a girl," Sirdeaner says. "The girl got really upset and threatened to beat him."
Sirdeaner says Carl was afraid he'd receive a suspension. "I tried to reassure Carl," she says. "He just went quietly up to his room, and I continued making dinner."
While making dinner, Sirdeaner decided she would bring Carl to the PTO meeting that night to talk to the principal about what happened. When she went upstairs to get Carl, she says she found him hanging from the stairwell banister. "My niece called 911, and then my daughter brought up a knife and I cut the extension cord myself," she says. "It was the worst day of my life."
Sirdeaner says she doesn't believe Carl's suicide was premeditated. "I don't really think that he planned it," she says. "But I know on that day part of everything that happened, the girl did end up telling him that, 'You act like you're feminine.'"
Carl also left a note, but Sirdeaner says it did not say why he chose to take his life. In the note, Sirdeaner says Carl left his favorite toy to his sister. "He told everybody that, you know, he loved them very much. He said he was very sorry," she says. "He was looking out for his younger brother, Charles, and he didn't want him to have a difficult time."
Across the country in the Atlanta area, 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera was also being bullied, according to his family. His mother, Masika, says Jaheem never had these problems until he moved from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands the year before. "My baby liked to dance. My baby liked to draw," she says.
Masika says Jaheem told her kids at school used to call him gay. "[They'd say]: 'You're from the Virgin Islands. You're a virgin. You're ugly. You can't do this. You can't do that,'" she says. "At first he used to tell me everything, but then he just stopped."
In April 2009, Masika says Jaheem told his best friend he'd had enough.
Masika says Jaheem came home from school on April 16, 2009, in a good mood. "He showed me his report card. I high-fived him," she says.
Then, Jaheem's sister told her another child had called Jaheem gay. "He got upset," she says. "I sent him upstairs. He usually [goes] upstairs and plays with his toys and gets over it."
When Masika went upstairs to get Jaheem for dinner, she made a tragic discovery. "I unlocked the door; I saw my baby there hanging," she says.
Masika says Jaheem was happy the weekend before his death but showed signs of depression when he had to go back to school. "He just started dragging. He [didn't] want to eat. He [didn't] want to brush his hair. He [didn't] want to brush his teeth," she says. "That was weird to me. I thought he was sick."
Masika says Jaheem left no note. "He just did it," she says. "Now I won't have my boy child. That was my only boy child."
University of Illinois professor Dr. Dorothy Espelage says there's a term for what Carl and Jaheem experienced—sexual bullying. Dr. Espelage says half of all bullying in elementary and middle schools involves the use of gay slurs.
"Kids are introduced to sexual materials earlier in life, some of which they don't understand—language they don't understand," she says. "Kids use these words really not knowing that there are serious short-term and long-term consequences."
Sexual bullying is really a form of sexual harassment, Dr. Espelage says. "Sexual harassment is calling others these names of 'gay' and 'fag,' and when you do that, directed to boys, it's the most hurtful thing you can do to attack their masculinity," she says. "When you call a girl a 'whore,' a 'lesbian,' it serves the same purpose."
Dr. Espelage says it's important to realize that this bullying isn't usually perpetrated by one bully. "It's groups of kids that do it. Some kids that are popular, this is how they establish dominance; this is how they look cool," she says. "Then you've got good kids around them ... contributing to it, egging it on, not supporting the victim, and ultimately it becomes a climate problem. It's the school's problem."
Sexual bullying is devastating for a child, but it's even more dangerous when cyberbullying is brought into the picture. This type of bullying contributed to Ryan Halligan's suicide in 2003, according to his family. "He was definitely the apple of my eye," says his mom, Kelly. "He had the greatest gift of all, and it was a great personality."
Ryan's parents say kids started teasing him in fifth grade. "When Ryan came to me and said he was being picked on, my initial response was: 'It's just words. You need to just ignore him,'" says his dad, John.
The bullying continued on and off until seventh grade. To his parents' surprise, Ryan said he was becoming friends with one of his bullies, but things quickly took a bad turn. "He spread a rumor around the school and online that my son was gay," John says. "It was like a feeding frenzy. All of a sudden, kids who normally didn't bully Ryan got in on the so-called fun."
Ryan started getting vulgar, homophobic e-mails but didn't tell his parents. He also began long online chats with a girl he liked—which turned out to be a devastating setup. "In front of her friends, she told Ryan: "Look, you're just a loser. I don't want anything to do with you. I was just joking,'" says John, who says he learned about the incident later. "She and a friend started to laugh."
A humiliated Ryan said girls like them made him want to kill himself. A month later, Ryan hanged himself in the bathroom of his home. "I remember screaming: 'Why? Why?'" Kelly says. "I didn't understand it. He just seemed so happy."
"If I had the opportunity to talk to Ryan right now, I would say: 'Ryan, I love you. I want to make sure you understand that I love you. We're going to be together again someday,'" John says.
Today, John shares Ryan's story with students and teachers to bring awareness to the problem. "Cyberbullying is far more dangerous than what we had to deal with a generation ago," he says. "The level of pain that can be brought about by this behavior is unbelievable."
John says he had no idea his son was being harassed online until after his death, when he signed on to his son's instant messaging account. It was there he says he learned of the taunts—and found evidence of his son's deep depression. "It was very clear he had been contemplating and actually planning this final act," he says.
At the time, John says he and his wife weren't trained to see the signs of depression or suicide in their son. "That last summer he became very withdrawn," he says. "I just thought he was becoming an older teenager who didn't want to hang out with Dad anymore."
John says he received some closure after confronting the bullies who taunted his son. John says he told the girl who embarrassed Ryan that he didn't believe she would have done what she did if she knew Ryan would kill himself. "When we met, she held me so tight, and I felt the sorrow and I felt the remorse," he says.
John also spoke with the boy who bullied Ryan. "It took a few more steps, but in the end, he also broke down and cried and gave me a very sincere, heartfelt apology," John says. "He finally got in touch with the level of pain that he had brought to Ryan as well."
John says it's important to realize they are just kids. "Tragically, I don't think they were in touch with the pain they were causing," he says. "Because I know they would not have done what they did if they knew the outcome would be this."
Through it all, John says he doesn't blame any person or event for Ryan's death. "In the end, I believe my son died of an illness called depression, and I believe the depression came about because of the toxic middle school environment that he was in at the time," he says. "Tragically, it went undetected and untreated, but I think there are so many kids like him out there that are at risk."
Jackie says she worries for her 13-year-old son, Chase. "Kids are always pushing him around, calling him a loser and a fag. He's been threatened and punched," she says. "Once a week, I am at his school trying to calm him down or talk with teachers and counselors about why he's being picked on. Nothing seems to work."
A recent warning sign has Jackie more worried than ever. "Chase left a note at school saying he couldn't take it anymore," she says. "I'm scared as his mother that he might just go away and that I can't help him."
Chase says ignoring the bullying is doing more harm than good, but he's never seriously thought about taking his life. "Sometimes it gets to the point where I feel that I should have," he says. "It just doesn't feel to me that it would solve anything. I just feel that it would make things worse, for not only me, but everyone around me."
Chase meets with Dr. Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who specializes in bullying. "Ever since first grade, I've really been bullied and picked on and called names. And I kind of got used to it, and then I started going on the bus and then it just got worse," Chase says.
For the past three years, Chase says one boy in particular has targeted him. Dr. Lipkins asks Chase how he feels when the bully calls him a fag—the term Chase says bothers him the most. "Sometimes I just want to hit myself and ask myself: 'Why me? Is it my fault?'" he says. "I just think it's me because they know I will get mad and they know how to get to me."
Dr. Lipkins says Chase is right. "The bully can smell the perfect victim," she says. "What I mean by that is they know which kid is really going to get upset and how to upset them, and it sounds like this guy knows how to do it."
Dr. Lipkins helps Chase learn how to stand up for himself. The first thing she says kids who experience bullying should learn is when and where to talk back—and how to do it firmly. "We know that, 50 percent of the time, if you just say no to a bully, they'll stop," she says.
Body language can also stop a bully in his tracks. "We each have a personal space, and it's my job to protect my personal space," Dr. Lipkins says. "Body language is what your eyes are saying, what your face is saying. It's what your hands are saying. It's how loud you talk. It's how firm you talk."
Chase says he's always been told to just ignore the bullies—which Dr. Lipkins says is the worst advice you could give a bullied child. "We have to help the children to have a stand, to have a voice, to express themselves. Everybody has equal rights, and you have an equal right to be anywhere you are," Dr. Lipkins says. "We have to teach the kids how to protect their space and how to be firm and not to be a victim."
"We're handcuffing the kids," she says. "We're not allowing them to be real and have a voice."
Dr. Lipkins says Chase is a true hero. "He's a hero for coming here today, for telling his story, for sharing it," she says.
Chase says he's learned a lot. "In order to stop the bullying, we have to tell ourselves that we're not going to be victims," he says.
John says the most effective way to stop bullying is to train every student who's a witness to take a stand. "Positive peer pressure can have a tremendous effect," he says. "They can change somebody's life by not only sticking up for the kid being bullied, but they have an opportunity to teach the bully how to be a better person too."
School Statements on the Deaths of Carl Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera
New Leadership Charter School
The entire New Leadership Charter School family is deeply saddened by the loss of Carl Walker-Hoover. It is unthinkable that an eleven-year old child would end his precious life. Our heartfelt sympathy and prayers go out to the family and friends of Carl. We deeply regret the loss of his life.
No child should ever be subject to bullying and teasing, but we are all aware that it does exist among young people. As adults we must always be attentive and intervene appropriately. The school has in place policies and procedures for all forms of student behavior. These policies are part of the Springfield School System Student Handbook. In addition, New Leadership has established non-negotiable requirements for admission that both students and parents sign as a contract with the school. Some of these requirements also deal with expected student behavior.
The staff at New Leadership Charter School has consistently addressed any issue related to these policies whenever it has come to their attention, and they have placed special emphasis on the need for respect among the entire school population as an integral part of the leadership training provided to students.
As Chairman of the Board of Trustees of New Leadership Charter School, I have initiated an investigation into the facts and the allegations to ensure that the school responded in an appropriate manner.
Peter J. Daboul
Chairman of the Board
New Leadership Charter School
DeKalb County School District’s Official Statement Dunaire Elementary School
The DeKalb County School District experienced a tragic loss in the passing of Jaheem Herrerra. Jaheem was a bright, well-liked, and creative child who will be sorely missed by his family, the entire school district and our community. As a district, we are devastated by this loss, and our hearts go out to his family. Students and staff members have worked closely with Jaheem's family to support them during this very difficult time. Dunaire Elementary students prepared cards, letters, and a special tribute scrapbook to present to Jaheem's family.
We are a large, diverse School District and we embrace and appreciate that diversity. In the DeKalb County School District, our staff works diligently to provide a safe and nurturing environment for all students.
We utilize a variety of resources to ensure safety in our schools. The resources include, but are not limited to, prevention-intervention specialists, school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, mediation, individual and small-group counseling, the Anti-Defamation League’s "No Place for Hate" ("NPFH") Anti-Bullying Program, gang awareness workshops, and monitoring/supervision of all students.
Jaheem’s family has made some serious accusations against the school Jaheem attended. Dr. Crawford Lewis, Superintendent of DeKalb Schools, and the entire Board of Education have pledged their commitment to perform a thorough review of this matter. After our investigation is complete, we trust that we will be able to provide answers to the many questions being raised.