Denver, Colorado - Leia Pierce shuffled out the front door on Tuesday. Her son, Jamel Myles, 9, had killed himself last week, and she was still struggling with the basics. Eating. Sleeping. “I took a shower, but I put the same clothes back on,” she said, staring at the ground. “I need him back.”
Jamel, a fourth grader at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, hanged himself in his bedroom last Thursday, according to the county coroner, and his death has plunged a mother into despair and a community into disbelief.
Pierce says her son committed suicide after a year in which he and his older sister were bullied frequently at school. Over the summer, he had told his mother he was gay. Now, she is angry at the school, which she believes should have done more to stop the taunts and insults.
Will Jones, a spokesman for Denver Public Schools, said administrators planned to conduct a thorough review of the case. “We are deeply committed to our students’ well-being,” he said in a statement.
Jamel’s death comes amid a startling rise in youth suicides, part of a larger public health crisis that has unfolded over a generation: Even as access to mental health care has expanded, the suicide rate in the United States has risen 25 percent since 1999. Middle schoolers are now just as likely to die from suicide as they are from traffic accidents.
Staff at schools like Joe Shoemaker have had to navigate a new media landscape in which cruelty can be spread by anyone old enough to use a smartphone. This has left teachers and administrators - already overburdened - wrestling with expanded responsibilities. In recent years, some parents have begun suing schools over bullying, raising questions over how much teachers can possibly be expected to do to stop the behaviour.
On Monday, Joe Shoemaker Elementary had a crisis team of psychologists and social workers on hand to help.
Pierce, 31, works at a hardware store and was raising three children - Jamel, Taniece, 10, and Shayla, 14. Jamel, who was obsessed with cartoons and computers, woke each morning to style his own curly hair, just like his older sisters, his mother said. Last school year, Pierce said she had been in frequent contact with administrators about behaviour and bullying issues.
Thursday was Jamel’s fourth day of fourth grade. Pierce picked him up, they stopped at Starbucks and went to dinner as a family. Back home, Pierce sent the children to clean their rooms.
Jamel left his door ajar. When Pierce went in, she found him dead.
She tried CPR, she said, but it was too late. Later, Taniece told her that the bullying that had plagued them last year had continued into this year.
On Monday, Pierce went to see her son’s body for the last time, she said, laying next to him for two hours while she watched his favourite cartoons. She also sang to him.
On Tuesday, standing outside her mother’s brick home where she has been staying, Pierce was still in the same T-shirt she was wearing the last time she had hugged Jamel. Across the street, a woman watered a bright green lawn.
“We need to be more loving, more caring, more accepting of each other,” Pierce said. “My heart breaks every second.”
Taniece, now the youngest child, said she had been dreaming about her brother. “Every time I wake up, I see a vision of Jamel,” she said. “And, well, it kind of freaks me out. And it gets me a little worried. And I miss him very much.”
Inside, Shayla, the eldest, curled into a brown leather couch, watching television.
Pierce’s mother, Jacque Miller, 53, said she could not blame her grandson’s death on the school. “The statement that it takes a village to raise a child is true,” she said. “And the village is broken.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
The New York Times