by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
On January 29, 14-year-old Rafael Morelos hanged himself after friends say he was subjected to bullying at Cashmere Middle School, where he had enrolled last fall. According to classmates, fellow students bullied Morelos because he was Gay.
'He told me he got shoved and punched in the face in P.E. in the locker room at Cashmere,' one friend said. Added another: 'He was tired of people saying that his little brothers would follow in his footsteps and be Gay, too.'
Heather Carter, project manager for the Washington State Youth Suicide Prevention Program's LGBT arm - OUTLoud - told Seattle Gay News that tragedies like this one can be avoided if resources are provided - something that might be difficult in small towns such as Cashmere, Washington. 'We have seen some research show that suicide rates are higher in conservative areas for teens and that LGB youth experience a decreased rate for suicide in more supportive environments.' The research didn't address Transgender youth.
'The research I refer to was conducted in Oregon and their findings were that when communities support their Gay young people and schools adopt anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that specifically protect Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual youth, the risk of attempted suicide by all young people drops, especially for LGB youth,' she said.
Morelos' friends say one bully created a fake Facebook page so that he or she could taunt him online.
'Cyberbullying is a huge problem,' Kevin J. Roberts, author of Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap, told SGN. 'Much of the verbal assaults in shoot-'em-up games, like Call of Duty and Gears of War, revolves around homosexuality-oriented epithets. The underpinnings of this lie in the fact that those games are 'macho proving grounds,' and for young males, homosexuality-oriented epithets represent an assault on one's masculinity or one's masculine worthiness.'
'Of course,' he continued, 'cyberbullying takes place in a variety of social media.'
According to www.kidshealth.org, a 2006 poll from the national organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that one in three teens and one in six preteens have been the victims of cyberbullying. As more and more youths have access to computers and cell phones, the incidence of cyberbullying is likely to rise.
'We've all read about or heard of young students committing suicide after repeated cyberbullying attacks from other students,' Kevin Gerard Kilpatrick, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Cal State San Marcos, told SGN. 'In my opinion, cyberbullying will outpace physical bullying soon because of the anonymity inherent in social media. Young students are particularly vulnerable to adverse reactions due to the fact that they are forming their self-image in the midst of cyberbullying. When so much emphasis is placed on popularity, a student's standing can be threatened by one well-placed text, tweet, Facebook comment, or email blast.'
Morelos' mother, Malinda, maintains she never knew about the bullying. 'He did not tell me he was being bullied,' she said. 'He had a dark side inside him that he never told me his feelings anymore. I thought it was just him being a teenager, and I just didn't know why.'
Carter says that Morelos' silence is not uncommon with youth who are victims of bullying.
'What we know is that most often youth who are bullied or witness bullying don't tell any adults,' she said. 'That's why, when we were looking at the new statewide bullying policies and procedures, we wanted a piece in it that gave students more options for reporting on bullying.'
The result is it allows the complainant to choose among anonymity, confidentiality, or non-confidentiality when reporting on bullying (the latter can result in actual discipline whereas the former two can result - by law - only in things like increased staff presence in problem areas and school-wide training).
'We hope this will increase reporting rates,' said Carter.
Rob Cline, principal at Cashmere Middle School, said school officials had taken 'appropriate action' earlier in the year when Morelos was bullied, but declined to say what action the district took to combat antigay attacks.
'Student discipline is not something I am at liberty to share,' Cline told The Advocate.
Carter, who has experience advising educators in some of the state's smaller and more conservative towns, reminds us that the bully is a victim, too. 'We know that those who bully have reasons for why they do what they do. We have to look at the full picture. Research has shown that those who bully may be experiencing violence in their home, there may be social pressure to act a certain way, and/or there may be underlying prejudice that leads to the behavior. We need to understand the motivation so was can focus on changing the behavior.'
'In addition, research shows that there's an increase in risk for suicide among those who bully also, not just amongst the targets of bullying,' said Carter.
The investigation is currently closed, but local police officials have said it would be reopened if the school or family presents evidence of bullying.
Carter says she would advise teachers counselors and parents of surviving teens youth in the area to 'let them process Morelos' death in a safe space about how they feel.'
'They need to know they have someone they can talk to and depend on,' she said. 'They need permission to grieve their loss. They also need to know where to turn in their community in case they are also struggling.'
We live in a state that is often labeled progressive. Whenever Washingtonians hear about a youth suicide perceived to have been caused by bullying - on or off the internet - it could be cause for confusion. After all, we just passed marriage equality, Gay Pride events happen all over the state, and there are over 300 GSA chapters in schools across the state. But Carter cautions that suicide is a 'complex issue and there are always many factors that come into play.'
'Education is so important,' said Carter. 'We [OUTLoud] can provide training to communities to help prevent horrible tragedies like this from happening by teaching the warning signs and how to talk about suicide with a youth you're concerned about. We also can encourage the media to properly report on suicide so as not to contribute to suicide contagion.'
For more information about OUTLoud and Youth Suicide Prevention Program or to make a donation, visit them online at www.yspp.org.
If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to, call (800) 273-TALK or the LGBTQ-specific (866) 4-U-TREVOR (488-7386).
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