11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a sixth grader, was taunted mercilessly by school bullies. His mom did everything she could to stop it ... but he committed suicide last week. How can we prevent something like this from happening again?
Sanjay Chandra: The kids at Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover's school taunted him constantly. His mom says her son's classmates called him gay on a daily basis, made fun of his clothes and threatened to harm him, according to the Springfield Republican.
This horrific tragedy brings to mind the death of 15-year-old Lawrence King, an openly gay 8th grader allegedly shot to death by a fellow male student who he asked to be his Valentine. That was classified as a hate crime.
Ironically, today would have been Carl Joseph's 12th birthday. Today also just happens to be the 13th annual National Day of Silence. where hundreds of thousands of students take some form of a vow of silence to bring attention to anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) bullying and harassment at school.
The National Day of Silence came too late for Carl Joseph.
Carl Joseph's mother, Sirdeaner L. Walker, called the New Leadership Charter School about her son's bullying weekly, but says they did little to nothing to stop it. She found Carl hanging by an extension cord on the second floor of the family's home April 6. Ironically, she found him dead just minutes before she was going to a meeting to confront school authorities again.
"If anything can come of this, it's that another child doesn't have to suffer like this and there can be some justice for some other child. I don't want any other parent to go through this," she said.
"Bullycide" is all too common. A study by Yale University finds that bully victims are two to nine times more likely to report having suicidal thoughts than other kids. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people in the United States.
Kindness starts at home: "The reality is, any kid can become a bully or be victimized themselves, so it's crucial to take preventative measures now," says Ellis. "Bullying is a learned behavior. So when kids see you criticize others ("Can you believe what Jill was wearing?"), they mimic your actions out in the world. What's more, insecurity usually triggers a bully's behavior. So raising confident and empathetic children will have a two-fold effect: Not only will your kids have positive self-esteem, but they'll be more likely to stand up for other kids who are being harassed."
Develop a buddy system: "It's a fact that bullies rarely strike groups -- they just don't have the guts," says Ellis. "If your child is being harassed, make sure he or she walks around school with a friend, or is within earshot of a teacher." If someone does start bullying your kid, have them look the bully in the eye and say, "I don't like your teasing. Stop it right now." Then they should walk away and report the incident. If the bully pushes, teach your kid not to hit back. "Bullies want a reaction, so if the victim reciprocates, the problem will worsen," says Ross.
Take action: "As tempting as it is to sit down with the troublemaker's parents, don't," says Ellis. "Most parents are defensive toward criticism of their child or are in denial there's even a problem." A better idea: Go to the school directly, and record every incident of harassment. Then ask your school to develop an anti-bullying program and form a watchdog group with other parents. "The sad truth is most prevention lies with parents, because most schools just don't take bullying seriously enough."
This appears to be the case in this tragic situation, sadly.
How do we teach our kids tolerance of gay or transgendered classmates? We called Cornell University psychologist Ritch C. Savin-Williams, author of The New Gay Teenager, for tips on teaching our own kids tolerance for transgendered kids. "Parents must do everything they can to create a wide spectrum of gender expression," he says.
Here are his top five tips:
- Start early. Even toddlers can learn that gender expression is okay.
- Encourage emotion. Allow your child to cry and express his or her feelings.
- Watch your language. Ban expressions like "boys don't cry" or "girls aren't pushy" from your vocabulary.
- Offer kids a variety of toys. For instance, don't say things like, "You want the truck, right?" to your toddler son. Let him decide--even if he chooses a doll or princess toy.
- Allow kids to be open and positive about peoples' differences. Even if you aren't tolerant of gay or transgendered people, your children live in a world that's very different than it was even 20 years ago. "Teach your child about the world that will come," Savin-Williams concludes, "not the one you were raised in."