Bullying and teen suicide: How do we adjust school climate?
Teen suicide attributed to bullying has educators and parents examining how school climate contributes to and can be changed to help the problem.
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A small forest of blossoming Bradford pear trees ushers students toward a cheery, single-story building of pale formstone and distinctive archways underneath a nearly fluorescent, pepper-green roof. In a grassy median in front, a jolly, metallic statue of the school's mascot, an Indian warrior, rises up in greeting.
If these features were meant to suggest a warm educational embrace, it is fair to say that they were lost on 17-year-old Tyler Lee Long. Whatever else he may have thought of Murray High, it was certainly not as a benign place. In his mind, the school might as well have been encased in barbed wire with gargoyles leering down at him from the facade. For Tyler, who suffered from Asperger's Disorder, Murray High was little more than a torture chamber, where – his parents say and students confirm – he felt himself subjected to unending humiliation at the hands of some of his fellow students under the indifferent watch of teachers and administrators.
Last October, two months into his junior year, Tyler could bear it no longer. He had brighter dreams of his future – he was two weeks from earning his black belt in karate, and he envisioned attending the University of Texas and one day designing the sort of computer games he loved playing. But none of that was enough to keep him going back to Murray High.
So on Oct. 17, after his family had gone to bed, he changed out of his pajamas into his favorite black T-shirt and jeans, strapped one of his belts around his neck, opened the louvered doors of his bedroom closet, and hanged himself from a shelf.
Tyler's suicide note does not specifically mention bullying as the reason for his action, but his parents, Tina and David Long, have no doubt why he took his life. "Tyler didn't want to be bullied any longer," Mrs. Long says evenly in the family's Colonial house about 35 miles southeast of Chattanooga, "and that is the bottom line."
In other words, say the Longs, Tyler committed "bullycide," a term increasingly finding its way into the educational lexicon as a result of several teen suicides that were attributed at least in part to bullying. Most recently – in March – the term pierced national consciousness when a Massachusetts district attorney indicted nine students on criminal charges arising from the suicide of a 15-year-old Irish immigrant named Phoebe Prince who also hanged herself after experiencing persistent bullying.
Also in March, the Longs filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Murray County School District and Murray High School principal Gail Linder for allegedly failing to protect Tyler despite many entreaties from his parents.