Before sliding into 2019, Yahoo Lifestyle takes a quick look back at some of the year’s biggest stories, and what’s happened since, with Rewind 2018.
It’s been four months since Denver mom Leia Pierce lost her 9-year-old son to death by suicide. And while her Colorado community is slowly adjusting to this tragedy and what it has revealed, to this bereaved mother, not enough has changed.
Jamel Myles took his own life in August, four days into the school year. He had just come out as gay to his mother and classmates, and the media ran with the idea that he was bullied because of it, causing him to kill himself. But Pierce wants the world to see the bigger picture.
“This wasn’t just about Jamel being gay,” Pierce tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It was about so much more.”
Pierce believes bullying was a major player in Jamel’s struggle, but it had been going on since long before he came out. And the problem was that the school, Joe Shoemaker Elementary, did nothing about it, Pierce claims. “We spent months before Jamel’s death begging for protection of my children from bullying, for help with other important things, and the school refused to talk with us in any meaningful way.”
This continued after his death, as well, she and her lawyer allege. “In the aftermath of Jamel’s death, the school and Denver Public Schools (DPS) as a whole went into defensive mode and, as a result, this family was greeted with an almost absolute silence up until early December,” Pierce’s lawyer Jessica Peck tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Without question: There were systematic failures here.”
In response to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment on the situation, Joe Shoemaker Elementary administration shared a copy of a memo it sent to the school community in December regarding Jamel’s death, and about its investigation into Pierce’s claims that the school could have done more to prevent it.
“As many of you know, DPS conducted a formal review related to the allegations of bullying, including allegations in the media that the student was bullied after coming out as gay,” principal Christine Fleming wrote. “During the review, DPS talked with dozens of students, teachers, staff, and family members. … The review did not find evidence that this tragedy was rooted in bullying, including bullying based on the student’s actual or perceived status as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Pierce did not take this news well, especially because she says she wasn’t included in this investigation.
“It breaks my heart that our own school district would tell the media that it has concluded its investigation when it never bothered to call us up and discuss their findings,” she said. “Imagine if your child died in such a horrible, tragic way, only to later find out that investigators came up with their own theory as to how or why he died, without ever talking with you, never asking for your own records or your own input, as his parent?”
But according to administrators of other organizations, this tragedy has motivated the school district to try to make changes.
“In the days and weeks after Jamel’s death, we got a lot of calls from schools and superintendents about how they can support their youth,” Hope Anderson, MSW, program engagement coordinator at Rainbow Alley, Colorado’s only full-time LGBTQ-youth service organization, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So we’ve offered support.”
Adds Nadine Bridges, MSW, director of youth services at Rainbow Alley, “One of the board members of DPS [department of protective services] came to Rainbow Alley and sat with our youth advisory board for a few hours to talk to them about what they needed to do. Our youth leaders partnered with the Denver school board to put out a memorandum of what they were going to do, especially in Denver public schools, to support the LGBT community.”
There’s much more still to do, though, Bridges says. “If you’re in middle school and high school, we have more of an opportunity to talk with you. But anytime that we try to offer any type of training, anti-bullying training or understanding-gender training, we’ve been told we can’t do it with the elementary-school-aged kids,” she says, explaining that Rainbow Alley is up against stigma. “They immediately equate it to something bad. Even if the school recognized there was anti-LGBT bullying going on, the odds that we would have been able to get in there to provide support is at a minimum.” Out of the schools they’ve heard from in the wake of Jamel’s death, she says, only one elementary school has asked them to come in to lead a training.
So while it’s great that the elementary schools are reaching out for guidance, Bridges and Anderson wish they could be allowed to do more; while they have 10 trainings set up going into the new year, none are in elementary schools.
But beyond the in-school programming, Bridges says the organization held a rally in November, pushed by the young boy’s suicide. “It was a trans visibility rally,” she says. “Our youth led the whole thing, and we had about 150 folks and over 10 speakers. It came about with Jamel in mind.”
Jamel’s death was not the first time bullying has resulted in youth suicide in Colorado. “One year ago this month, Colorado lost a 10-year-old girl, Ashawnty Davis, to suicide,” Adam Collins, the bullying prevention and education grant coordinator in the Office of Learning Supports at the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Her family also reported that it was related to bullying.”
But that time, there was a swift response, as the Colorado legislature passed Ashawnty’s Law, which tasked CDE with developing a model bullying prevention policy as guidance for school districts, Collins says. Schools will have access to these resources by July 1, 2019, which will hopefully keep children like Ashawnty and Jamel from feeling so defeated by bullies.
Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod, who had founded Caring 4 Denver right before Jamel took his life, took similarly swift action after his death. “When I started Caring 4 Denver, I wasn’t focused on suicide,” Herod tells Yahoo Lifestyle. But Jamel’s death changed that. Now, Caring 4 Denver will raise $45 million per year to fund mental health and addiction services for children and adults, a large amount of which will go to aiding youth, including for suicide prevention.
“Jamel had gone to a couple days of school. But his school counselor was coming Friday. He needed that counselor Monday or Tuesday,” Herod says. “And then we realized that we don’t have enough mental health and addiction counselors in our schools. In fact we have more law enforcement than we do counselors in our schools right now. And that needed to change.”
Pierce, meanwhile, wants the district to take accountability for neglecting her son’s needs and for ignoring their pleas for help. “A positive change would involve the school and the school district stepping up to the plate, admitting their mistakes, and making the changes that we need to see to feel confident that other kids will be protected in a way that Jamel wasn’t,” she says. As a way to try to make that happen, she and Peck are filing an appeal for an independent evaluation.
Says Peck, “Jamel’s legacy, if nothing else, will be that transparency isn’t optional when it comes to protecting the children of tomorrow.”
Now, in between meetings with her lawyer, Pierce and her two daughters “are relying upon a strong network of family, including Pierce’s mother, and a small circle of close friends, to move forward,” Peck says. Some of her friends even put on a fashion show to raise money for the family, according to Fox station KDVR. “Pierce has been thinking about starting a charity in her son’s name. She hopes to spread a message of acceptance and anti-bullying,” KDVR reported.
And still, Peck reports, the bullying hasn’t stopped. “The girls have been bullied and taunted by other students in the aftermath of Jamel’s death, and Leia is doing everything she can to ensure that schools hold bullies accountable,” she says.
Pierce withdrew her younger daughter from Shoemaker, “and we’re working with appropriate professionals to ensure that they are being provided adequate support to continue processing their brother’s tragic death,” Peck says.
Pierce’s life was turned upside down when Jamel died, and it has been constantly shifting ever since. Whether she’s meeting with her lawyer, speaking out against bullying, mourning the loss of her son, spending more time with close family and friends, or making life changes for the sake of her daughters, one thing remains consistent: the pain. “Nothing has gotten easier,” she says.
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