Bullied 11-year-old was called ‘faggot,’ physically attacked
Above: During an April 21 vigil, Jaheem Herrera’s mother, Masika Bermudez, holds her daughters Yerralis, 10, and Ny’irah, 7, while her husband, Norman Keene, comforts her.
Below: A makeshift memorial left to Jaheem Herrera, who killed himself after enduring gay taunts at his elementary school, is posted on the door of his family’s home.
Jaheem Herrera took his own life rather than endure for one more month the physical attacks and gay slurs he faced as a student at Dunaire Elementary School in Georgia.
Herrera, 11, came home from school April 16 upset about the continual abuse from classmates, went to his room and hanged himself in his closet with a cloth belt. Herrera’s mother, Masika Bermudez, and other parents said children at the suburban Atlanta school taunted Herrera daily and called him “gay.” Bermudez said she feared that is why her son took his own life — and that the bullies continue to harass others.
“I don’t know how to explain, but that was my only little boy, my first born,” she said at a vigil held at their home April 21. “And now he’s gone, and nobody is going to replace him. Nobody.”
Herrera and his family moved to the Atlanta area this year from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His accent likely made him stand out at his school, where a pack of bullies hounded him with words like “faggot” and “gay” despite his interest in girls.
“He would be writing notes to his little girlfriends, his friends, he was a clown,” his mother said in an interview before the vigil.
“He’d do that Michael Jackson dance for them,” stepfather Norman Keene added.
Bermudez and Keene struggled to understand how the situation became so dire a fifth-grader felt the only way out was to hang himself a month before the end of school.
“We were all leaving for the summer,” Keene said. “He was excited to play on the beach and see his friends. Tickets were bought and everything.”
“We were going home to play on the beach,” Masika Bermudez said. “Now I am going home to bury my son.”
Bermudez and Keene clutched their remaining family tight as they tried to say goodbye to their only son at a vigil in front of their apartment.
Herrera wasn’t the only boy bullied at Dunaire. Alice Brown’s son was Herrera’s friend and is bullied by the same kids, she said.
“My son was in school on Thursday, and he said Jaheem had asked him if anybody would miss him if he wasn’t here,” Brown said at the vigil. After taking several breaths, she wiped away the tears gathering under her glasses before continuing. “And he told him that he was his friend, you know, that he would miss him.”
Brown was one of several parents at the vigil who said their boys were harassed with gay slurs and the administration has done nothing to stop it. Monique McMiller said she has four boys at Dunaire and worked her way though the administration to the school board without any results when her 10-year-old was bullied last year.
“They called him a faggot, they called him gay, they told him he was a momma’s boy, they told him he was all kinds of things, they beat him up in the bathroom,” she said. “He was constantly afraid to go to school.”
Like several parents, McMiller said there is a systemic problem with the leadership at Dunaire and the school system.
“When it was my son, I was told that children with behavior problems were mixed in with children who did not have behavioral problems, and that was astounding to me as a parent,” she said.
The school system has not commented about Herrera’s death or the problem of bullying as a whole. DeKalb County Public School System spokesperson Dale Davis did not say whether the district was considering revising its bullying policy to include gay-specific protections, or if they were investigating conditions at Dunaire.
“Our policy states that DeKalb County Schools will not tolerate bullying — you can read it online,” Davis said.
Herrera’s family has retained an attorney and is contemplating legal action against the district.
“I will not rest until I get justice for my son,” Bermudez said.
Lawmakers made a push to tighten anti-bullying procedures in 2008, when state Sen. Chip Rogers, a Republican, introduced a bill that would have extended the definition of “bully” to include emotional distress and required schools to draft anti-bullying policies and parental notification.
Rogers didn’t reintroduce the bill this year, but state Rep. Donna Sheldon, a Republican, introduced a bill to give schools the option of transferring students who physically assault another.
“I have a constituent whose son had been bullied by a fellow classmate, and there ended up being a pretty severe altercation,” Sheldon said. “It resulted in my constituent’s son having to have reconstructive facial surgery. The police weren’t called immediately and it wasn’t handled the way we would have all liked it to be.”
Sheldon introduced her bill because once the attacker completed his sentence at an alternative school, he would be allowed to be in the same classroom as his victim. The bill was introduced too late in this year’s session to move forward.
“I definitely plan on moving it forward next year,” Sheldon said.
Parents mourn son who killed himself after gay taunts - Washington Blade: Gay and Lesbian News, Entertainment, Politics and Opinion