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April 23rd, 2009
08:40 PM ET

Bullied to death: Addressing harassment and suicide prevention in schools

Charles Robbins, Executive Director & CEO, The Trevor Project and
Eliza Byard, PhD, Executive Director, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network


The impacts of language and behavior can be deadly, especially in a school environment where young people are already highly impressionable and vulnerable. Unfortunately, this difficult lesson has been conveyed many times when young people resort to drastic and permanent measures to escape the despair of enduring constant bullying and harassment at school.

It is deeply disturbing that on April 6, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Springfield, Mass., hanged himself with an extension cord in his family’s home after being subjected to continuous anti-gay bullying and harassment at his middle school. It is equally as disheartening that on April 16, less than two weeks later, Jaheem Herrera, an 11-year-old fifth-grader from DeKalb County, Ga., also hanged himself at home after being the subject of anti-gay taunts from his classmates. These were two completely separate and isolated instances, but the tragic and preventable nature of each unfortunate loss of life remains the same.

Neither Carl nor Jaheem identified as gay, yet their peers’ defamatory language and hurtful behaviors broke the barriers of sexual orientation and gender identity. Being taunted as “faggot,” “queer” or “homo” by classmates is offensive and demeaning to any student – straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning alike.

Carl is the fourth middle school student this year to complete suicide due to bullying, and Jaheem was still in elementary school. Older students are also at a high risk, as suicide is one of the top three causes of death among 15 to 24-year-olds and the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, and those who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to do so.

Two of the top three reasons secondary school students said their peers were most often bullied at school were actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, according to a 2005 report by GLSEN and Harris Interactive. In addition, The Trevor Project fields tens of thousands of calls from young people each year, both straight and LGBT-identified, with rejection and harassment by peers being one of the top five issues reported by callers.

In the same GLSEN and Harris report, more than a third of middle and high school students said that bullying, name-calling and harassment is a somewhat or very serious problem at their school. Furthermore, two-thirds of middle school students reported being assaulted or harassed in the previous year and only 41% said they felt safe at school.

Enough is enough. It is time for school administrators, educators, parents, students and the government to work together to stop bullying and harassment in schools. Furthermore, we must teach young people to understand the profound impact of words and actions, and to recognize depression and suicidal ideations amongst their peers. By helping young people take responsibility for their actions and respect their peers, and simultaneously empowering them with the knowledge and skills they need to understand when their classmates are in crisis, we can work toward ending the dual epidemics of school bullying and youth suicide once and for all.

We as parents, teachers and concerned citizens can do our part to protect students by speaking out and demanding that anti-bullying and harassment programs and suicide prevention education are mandated in all schools. We can seek commitment from the government to end bullying by training educators on how to effectively intervene, teaching students to respect and help one another, and ensuring that all students know how to reach out to a peer who may be in crisis. We must lead by example and remember that the language we choose is easily repeated by young people. We must listen to children when they reach out for help, and demonstrate to them that we will be understanding and non-judgmental if they need to talk.

Days like the GLSEN-sponsored National Day of Silence bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. On this day, thousands of students call for practical, appropriate interventions that work, hoping to move us closer to a future where every child can go to school free from fear. Weeks including the National Suicide Prevention Week encourage programs to increase suicide prevention efforts, including initiatives supported by The Trevor Project to protect LGBT youth.

It is our hope that in memory of Carl and Jaheem, and in honor of all young people who have completed suicide after enduring constant torment at school, we will be able to work together to promote school environments that celebrate diversity and encourage acceptance of all people. Only then will we be confident that our children are receiving the respect and education they deserve today in order to become the successful and equality-minded leaders of tomorrow.

The Trevor Project is the non-profit organization that operates the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. The Trevor Project was established in 1998 to promote acceptance of LGBTQ youth, and to aid in crisis and suicide prevention among that group.

GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Established nationally in 1995, GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.


Filed under: Education • Gay & Lesbian Issues
soundoff (181 Responses)
  1. Cynthia Stevens

    It is my understanding that suicide is the third largest cause of death of young men age 15-24. I am a Child and Young Adult volunteer advocate of some 15 years. A few things need to be considered: 1) Looking at the ages, there is a substantial amount of suicide happening in the 6 years after graduation from HS. 2) Most States do not have laws that sufficiently address Hate Crimes, and/or do not include same-sex attraction within the laws. 3) Even if there is no suicide or attempt, the effects of bullying lead to long-term damage to the victims (permanent, if not treated). The damage to the self-esteem leads to "acting out" behaviors to anesthetize the pain: substance abuse, promiscuity, "cutting", inability to hold down a job, running away/living on the street, eating disorders, etc. 4) Bullies are insecure–they are often being abused in the home and/or raised to think abusively about selected groups of people.
    I believe that the ultimate answer in the long term, will be community-building, and isolation of perpetrators from their victims, with treatment for both.

    April 26, 2009 at 6:16 pm |
  2. lisa--huber heights--ohio

    I am the parent of a 7th grader and he is constantly bullied and picked on, I have found that even when you talk to the teachers and principals, they just blow it off and don't do anything, i am very sad that children have to resort to tormenting other children, and have to make them feel the way they do. I think alot of parents need to pay more attention to the way their children act and treat people. I think if they noticed rude and bad behavior and corrected them and taught them from a young age that it is not acceptable to hurt peoples feelings we would all be better off.
    I am very sorry for the losses to the two families losing their son's, I just could never imagine the pain they are in...

    April 25, 2009 at 11:37 pm |
  3. Kamaile Nihipali

    I'm sorry for the family. I say and write this with love but yes there is something wrong with this picture and it should be dealt with. The mother of the child that died will need to grieve, but need to carry on somehow in making sure that this sort of thing doesn't happen again in her surroundings or environment. The child that was bullying the boy that died needs help. An investigation should be done to help both families

    April 25, 2009 at 4:14 am |
  4. JJ

    I feel that if official charges ( legal) would be made against the parents and the children that bully , if you gave the kids that are being bullied the correct tools and support, this would end. Most people think its a " rite of passage" , instead of thinking this cycle must be stopped. like Mary says its been going on for a long time, why is it still going on? I think we owe it to our children to be their advocates not tell them to just accept being bullied. I would like to see that bullies and their parents are charged with a crime and be forced to take classes and programs for the entire family. Teachers and administrator need to be given more tools to deal with this, they need to empower the kids that are being bullied.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:18 pm |
  5. Valeria

    I`m Brazilian and I`ve just watched Colorosso at TV. Bullying is a real problem everywhere but not faced as it should be. It`s time to recognize it as a silent violence and not wait until a suicide happens to talk about it.
    I`ve lived for a year in US and I was able to study bullying because here in Brazil `we`re just beginning to make research about the subject. The number of teens and children suicides in US are really great (maybe because here we don`t have statistics), but I could see while living there that educators are more aware of the problem.
    I would like to hear from you

    April 24, 2009 at 10:40 pm |
  6. dina212

    There needs to be more gay acceptance. If people are born that way they shouldn't be ostracized.

    April 24, 2009 at 9:41 pm |
  7. Joan L. Roccasalvo

    The determination to eliminate bullying should apply to every special group. Catholics are the most bullied class of people because it is socially acceptable to do so in public schools, on talk shows and other media outlets. Pope, priests, and nuns are regularly and caustically ridiculed for their objective standards of truth.

    If gender-associated bullying is to be stopped in schools, and it must be, so must ridicule of Catholic boys and girls, men and women, and finally those who minister within the Catholic Church.

    April 24, 2009 at 7:27 pm |
  8. Mary

    Anderson,

    Thank you very, very much for bringing this discussion to the forefront.

    The stories about these young people absolutely broke my heart. I would like to express my heartfelt sympathy to the families who have lost their precious young ones.

    It is my hope that AC360 will continue to follow-up on the progress made by "school administrators, educators, parents, students and the government to work together to stop bullying and harassment in schools." Let's KEEP them HONEST.

    As a mother of a son who has been bullied for being shy, I will say that the schools could do much more to help bullied children. I wish they would take-off their 'administrator hats' and put on their 'human hats' and REALLY try to fix this problem.

    If anyone is reading this who is being bullied - I want you to know that you are special and important. You don't deserve to be bullied. Please keep asking for help until the adults in your life get it. I am sending you a BIG hug. Don't give up - we need you in this world.

    April 24, 2009 at 3:27 pm |
  9. Ashley Smith

    This is beyond horrible. It is heart breaking. Does anyone know what is wrong with the world? When I saw the pictures of Carl and Jaheem, I couldn't believe it. These two young men were very handsome, not students who you would expect to get bullied. Many people are at fault for these tragedies. Didn't teachers and the staff observe the name calling and harassment? They should of. When it was reported, serious action should have been taken immediately. No child should get away with making racial remarks or sexual remarks to another child. I also blame the parents of the students who bully. If they were raised to have respect for everyone and to be a kind, decent person, we wouldn't have these tragedies. Chances are they are hearing racist and anti-gay remarks in the home by the parents, where else would they be picking this stuff up. Some parents actually encourage their children to bully. It's sick. It's impossible to correct every disfunctional home in this country. School's need to do more to protect children. These matters need to be taken very seriously. Children and their parents need to be held accountable for bullying. Who a person is raised around and what values they have been taught, will determine everything.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:15 am |
  10. John Stohrer

    In the United States, we are smitten with the notion that "bigger is better," and we lose sight of the purpose of mandated public education which is the creation of the people with whom we will live and work.

    School size was implicated in the Columbine tragedy, but nothing seems to have been done to correct that situation. We must be extraordinarily cautious in school construction planning because the commitment of public funds to building can create irreversible school environments.

    The public school has become a venue for the adulation of individual achievement, losing sight of the majority. The factors that drive behavior are lost in the student mass. Child psychologist Eda LeShan said it frequently and best in her writing:

    Education is in danger of becoming a religion based on
    fear; its doctrine is to compete. Our children are being led
    to believe that they are doomed to failure in a world which
    has room only for those at the top. ...in all our efforts to
    provide "advantages" we have actually produced the busiest,
    most competitive, highly pressured and over-organized
    generation of youngsters in our history and possibly the
    unhappiest.

    These are the environments that lead to bullying and tragic rebellion.

    April 24, 2009 at 10:34 am |
  11. Mary

    I disagree that the parents be held accountable I think the children who bully should be totally accountable for this. Bullying has been going on for a long time not just now. The difference now is that people do not hold kids responsible for things they Do...its always the parents fault or the teachers fault.

    The fact is there is something is seriously wrong with a child who does this sort of thing and they need to be dealt with. The problem needs to be investigated and you should show no tolerance what so ever for these acts.

    April 24, 2009 at 10:31 am |
  12. meenas17

    Bullying for fun , may be a pastime , but a transgressional error. Wounding others even jocularly. calling them names , addressing them as homo, have a horrible effect. The pride is affected, resulting in suicides. Derogatory remarks, are cruel threats to life, even sharper than a sword and even serious than a bullet.

    April 24, 2009 at 10:21 am |
  13. Michael

    Within 10 minutes of Anderson's segment last night, CNN aired the Sprint commercial that is based upon finding a missing kid in school--they find him having been shoved in his locker. Maybe CNN should stop accepting advertising that establishes bullying as a humorous and accepted part of school life if you really want to do something about it.

    April 24, 2009 at 10:16 am |
  14. Margaret-Arlington,TX

    This is just sad point blank. I due somewhat blame the school system but they can only do so much at some point the kids need to be held accountable of their own actions. According to last nights anderson copper 360 report the school that jaheem went to had bully pledges, activities that targeted school bulling, counselors that were specially trained for school bulling.

    Anderson if you are reading this can you ask oprah if you and her can do a special on this subject because it’s getting out of hand.

    April 24, 2009 at 10:10 am |
  15. Terry, TX

    Any child's rude, hateful, disruptive or violent behavior in an educational environment should not be tolerated...not just this subject. It is.. because schools are not backed by their school boards and the frivolous lawsuits that these moronic parents come up with. There are alot more deaths in that age group from..drugs, alcohol, car accidents. I would appreciated this article more... if it included all issues that result in deaths of these young lives.

    April 24, 2009 at 10:02 am |
  16. shara says

    Punishment and discipline is not the only possible response. If we, as a society, are trying to create a healthier culture for students and young people, then we need to work to build up peer mediation programs in our local schools. Schools with well-supported peer mediation programs have a lot less instances of harassment and bullying. Peer mediation programs empower students to resolve their own disputes, with the assistant of trained classmates, and it addresses interpersonal conflict when it is still at a low level – before it ever escalates into full-blown harassment or violence.

    Everyone who wants to do something about bullying and harassment should push their school board, principals, and superintendents to begin supporting (or expanding) peer mediation programs in local schools. If you have a community mediation center in your county, contact them to see what you can do to support the growth of local peer mediation programs.

    April 24, 2009 at 9:45 am |
  17. lacrisha

    this is out of hands,i now why this is happening the teachers in the school is not paying attention to the students thats telling them they are being bully.the bully is always watching the kids that they want to bully so the good kids feel threaten by them so the good kid want tell there parents until they cant take the bullying any more. this has happen to my 7 year old,i went to the princpal nothing happen,i went to the social worker nothing happen,the kids are the one who faces these bullys everyday so they now what they are up against.this is what needs to happen the bully really needs to be punished they are getting out of control with no punishment to follow.my child is now standing up to them.before she was just so frightenend of them. i told her if they make her feel scared to call me asap.my child is in the 2 grade and it is happening there.enough is enough.i will stop it when she goes to the older kid school.the teachers have always put this on the back burner to there student but not for my child i will see her threw this all the way.these bully parents dont have no control over them why send them to school in the first place if they are not there to learn.this is they every day thing i am not having that.i will seek justice for my child.so this could end as my child can go to school and get what she needs to succeed in her life.

    April 24, 2009 at 9:40 am |
  18. Antoine Sioufi

    Mr. Cooper,

    i caught the story Friday morning April 24th.

    What was missing from the strory is was any reference to the families of those who bully. I strongly beleive that if parents were made accountable for their bullying children, with serious fines and other punitive measures, they would likely cooperate with the schools to stop their children from bullying.

    April 24, 2009 at 8:55 am |
  19. P.A.Davis

    The taunting and name calling are prevalent in the elementary schools and the administration often turns a deaf ear to the complaints of parents and dismisses the incidents as "child's play".
    It's a serious concern especially if the harrasment continues from elementary to middle to high school where most of these kids will spend the school years together. Is the answer putting the tormented child in private school or home school? Someone needs to listen to the cries of the victims before it becomes the cries of the parents.

    April 24, 2009 at 8:35 am |
  20. Hema Sinha

    My son is being bullied in school. At lunch time the other kids will not sit for lunch till he sits and then they sit as far away from him as possible. During group activities, no one wants my son on thier team and the teacher finally assigns him. He used to cry and refuse to go to school. I brought this issue to the principal and she says " we have to send the kids to school it is not a choice" We sought assistance to change the school but according to the policy we have to physically move our residence to do so. We own the house and it will cost a significant financial loss at a time when the market is down and my husband does not have a job, moving is financially painful. We cannot even keep him at home they send the police and have severe truancy policy. I have gone to the administration and not got much help. The school denies bullying. They did have talks with students about being nice but it has no effect. I cannot get a transfer because the school denies bullying. What can I do. We did explore renting out our house but are worried the renter could damage the house and result in financial loss. The schools do not care about our children.

    April 24, 2009 at 8:24 am |
  21. Francine Williams

    often times teachers are aware of bullies but they tend to menimize it, they sometimes tell the victim just ignore them, have a seat and stop tadleing, or maybe move there seat. That does not make the problem go away, it just makes it worse and victims feel they have no one to turn to. Our school authorities need to pay more attention and address these complaints with something other than go have a seat, and believe me many teachers say those words everyday this is a huge problem.

    April 24, 2009 at 7:05 am |
  22. Andres Vasquez, Nashville, TN

    As someone who has been bullied in school based on sexual orientation, I know how difficult it can be to deal with being harassed in school. I, however, was in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades when I was facing this harassment and was attending a Christian school with a rather conservative religious bent. The abuse that I suffered caused me to have a nervous breakdown in the fall of my junior year in high school, after which I was forced to "come out" to my parents and they reported my abuse to school officials. Not only were the school officials uncaring and apathetic about the abuse I had suffered for two years right under the nose of various teachers, administrators, and the school guidance counselor, but they also refused to give any sort of severe punishment to the bullies. The one of my two primary abusers who was still attending the school at the time received one semester of academic probation, which was nothing more than a "slap on the wrist" in my opinion. I ended up leaving the school after my junior year because my parents and I so strongly disagreed with the way the matter was handled by the school administration. I was homeschooled my senior year of high school and am now finishing my freshman year in college. My heart goes out to the families of Carl and Jaheem because I have experienced similar harassment both in and outside of school. I think that incidents like these recent suicides over gay-bashing-like bullying should sound the alarm for teachers and other school staff to be on the lookout for such abuse in schools across America...you never know when or where it could happen or what school might not handle the issue appropriately. I certainly never expected my school to 'waffle' on the issue on punishing my abuser, but when it did, my parents and I were furious. Anyone who is facing such torturous conditions in school should not be forced to suffer constantly that way, and I hope that they will speak up in a timely manner, as I often wish I had done myself.

    April 24, 2009 at 7:03 am |
  23. Frank

    This topic hits home with me.

    I know the effects of bullying very well because I was the recipient from my first year of grade school through high school graduation. The attacks I endured ranged from a daily verbal assault to physical attack (broken bones). Gender-based assaults were an almost daily occurrence. I am and was straight, but I placed a high value on chastity which opened up to a whole slew of attacks. BTW- this is in suburbia and private Catholic schools.

    What really troubled me was the lack of action taken by the teachers and staff. I was always aware that they were not going to help me out no matter how bad events became. Sometimes I thought that the other children were receiving special treatment because of their athletic and academic activities. I even approached the local police when attacks became violent, only to see the offenders get away with a slap on the wrist.

    I am 27 now. I'd have to say that some scars heal while others do not. Occasionally, I come across one of the former bullies and they apologize for their actions. I always tell them that I forgave them a long time ago. These people will also ask if there is anything they can do for me. My usual response is "please make sure your kids don't do the same thing; they will listen to you."

    April 24, 2009 at 6:06 am |
  24. Kris

    I am so very sorry to hear about these two boys. After reading this, I feel lucky. My daughter suffered serious bullying for years. I complained and received lip service. It continued. I kept complaining and soon the fake sympathy I initially received at my daughter's schools was replaced with lifted eyebrows and rolled eyes. Nothing improved. The message I got was like, "Oh, yes, we take it seriously. On the other hand, kids will be kids." It went on and on. Day in and day out. My daughter didn't want to go to school. Developed stomach problems due to stress. Started overeating. I spent hundreds of hours getting her to understand that nothing was wrong with her, but that there was something VERY WRONG with the kids who tormented he and with the adults who who couldn't be bothered or refused to help. She understands now, NO THANKS to the people at school who were supposed to help or intercede. By the grace of God and no thanks to anyone at school, I still have my daughter.

    April 24, 2009 at 6:00 am |
  25. Victoria Jacquette

    thank you so much for this article as I just became the caregiver of my nephew who is 12 years old, and has repeatly told me how he is being bullied,as a new kid at his school, he is bi-racial and is often the target of negative remarks. they often have forced him into fights.
    again thanks for your report CNN.

    April 24, 2009 at 5:50 am |
  26. Elaine Harris

    Schools have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for students just as parents have a responsilbity to help teach their child that bullying is wrong. Many children simply follow the model of bullying they see exhibited by their parents. I haven't heard what is expected of the parents of these students that are bullying others. Shouldn't parents be held partially accountable for the words, attitudes, and actions of their children?

    April 24, 2009 at 5:48 am |
  27. Joshua

    My son whon is 7, was being bullied in class and on the bus by 1 kid. He came to me and told. I let him know to tell his teacher. His teacher told him to stop tattling, to sit and be quiet. I went to the school , and was assured it wouldnt happen again. My son came home a week later to tell me this kid takes my sons hand and hits him in the face the whole ride home. I took the weekend to teach my son about bullies, and also how to throw a punch . He went to school that monday and hit the bully in his mouth, and got in trouble with the bus driver. Yet nothing was done for my son. The bully stopped bullying him that day. Sad, I had to teach my son to hit back that young.

    April 24, 2009 at 5:44 am |
  28. Nancy Baxter

    Hearing about so much bullying and fighting in our local schools, I have often wondered who is finally responsible for the safety of our kids while they are in school? I always thought the school officials were parentis in locus and therefore had the responsiblity to keep them safe. If that is the case and they aren't keeping our kids safe, are they not sue-able? I really think something has to happen at that level to force school officials to step up to the plate and do their job.

    April 24, 2009 at 5:41 am |
  29. Rosa Wallace

    It is sad that in this day and age, we are still battling being bullied in schools. This has been going on for decades. There should be a system in place, or a program in every school in the nation that deals with this problem. This behavior should be punished severely. This is very serious.

    April 24, 2009 at 3:55 am |
  30. Revos

    Schools are not doing enough to protect these young kids,kids born out of USA are bullied every day,the school authorities know that, these poor kid end up in fighting and most of the time the bullied kid will be suspended for fighting, may because they don't know much English to explain the situation or may be because they feel unprotected and keep it to themselves.

    April 24, 2009 at 3:20 am |
  31. Evans Odote

    I can't believe this is happening in a country like America.I expect it to happen in My country Kenya where being gay is anathema though it exists!! I thought in the free world,there should be enough education and knowledge of diversity such that this critical stage was passed long time.

    my heart goes out to these young boys families.

    April 24, 2009 at 3:02 am |
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