12-Year-Old's Suicide Sparks Social-Media Outrage: Is It Enough?

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
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Ronin Shimizu. Photo by Instagram.

It’s been nearly a week since Ronin Shimizu, 12, a bright-eyed California boy who was passionate about cheerleading and fashion, committed suicide, following years of being bullied. And in the time since his death, social media has exploded with post-mortem sorrow, outrage, and several tributes, as well as a memorial Go Fund Me page that’s raised more than $10,000 in just two days.

“The fact that kids bullied this twelve year old boy so bad that he wanted to take his own life makes me sick to my stomach,” cried out one tweet in an endless stream of those using hashtags #RIPRonin and #RIPRoninShimizu this week. “That poor boy was only 12 years old,” wrote another. “Watch your words, they can cause more pain than you may know.”

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But still another expressed a feeling of futility. It asked, simply, “Why do people only start paying attention when it’s too late?”

It’s a worthy question, especially considering the relentless nature of the bullying Shimizu reportedly experienced — as well as news of other recent suicides apparently connected with bullying, such as that of 13-year-old Peyton James of Texas, who had been targeted by his peers since second grade before taking his own life in October.

“Social media can be an effective tool, but it’s easier to write your support than to show it in person and at school, and I don’t like that,” Donna Clark-Love, a bullying-prevention expert and educator based in Houston, Tex., tells Yahoo Parenting. “Oftentimes I’ll be speaking at a school and someone will ask me, ‘Did you see my [supportive] tweet?’ And my question is, did you stand up at school? Because if you’re going to do social media, then speak out in school, too.”

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Photo by Facebook

Still, notes David Bond, vice president of programs for The Trevor Project — a national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people— the outpouring on social media is a natural reaction and can indeed be positive. But it has the potential to backfire, too. “For the people who loved Ronin, it’s nice to see, and might be comforting,” Bond tells Yahoo Parenting. “For other young people potentially considering suicide, that concept of ‘contagion’ is something to be considered — that thought of ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone’ that can sometimes be reinforced through seeing such loving tributes. So it becomes a very complex situation.”

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As for Shimizu, the reported details of his life and death feel heart-wrenchingly familiar. Folsom Cordova Unified School District, where he attended both elementary and middle school, confirmed that there had been various allegations of bullying, and though they had been met with “appropriate action,” spokesperson Daniel Thigpen told the New York Daily News, “we’re certainly using this as an opportunity to look back at how we looked at the allegations.” Eventually, Shimizu’s parents took him out of class and began homeschooling him, although he continued cheerleading — the only boy on the Vista Junior Eagles Cheer Team.

“Tragically, we lost one of our own, Ronin Shimizu,” notes the website for the team, which is not affiliated with the school. “Please support his family through this extremely difficult time and keep all of them in your thoughts and prayers.”

Local station News 10 ABC aired a statement from the boy’s parents, Brandon and Danielle Shimizu, which read in part: “Ronin was one of the most loving, compassionate, empathetic, artistic and funny kids to grace this earth. Ronin was a child who was not afraid to follow his heart, and we as his parents did everything in our power to allow him to pursue his passions, while protecting him from the minority that could not understand the specialness he possessed. As you already know, Ronin loved to do Cheer, but he also loved art, fashion, being a Scout and most recently crew/rowing. It is true that because of his specialness, Ronin was a target of bullying by individuals that could not understand or accept his uniqueness. Ronin was not just a target of bullying because of his participation in cheer, but for him just being Ronin.”

A blog post on the Good Men Project put it this way: “When a boy refuses to adhere to rigid gender-based expectations, whether by wearing ‘feminine’ clothing or joining the cheerleading team or anything else, he is punished. Masculinity requires conformity.”

Sadly, notes Bond, “People are harassed and rejected when they don’t conform to societal norms. In this situation, it seems like Ronin was expressing who he was and it was in a way that was not typical for boys.” But, he says, “There is often an internal conflict when you want to be accepted and liked, but when you also want to be who you are and have joy in life.”

So what can people do — whether they knew Shimizu or not — when it comes to constructively expressing outrage and wanting to effect change regarding bullying and suicide prevention? Bond has a few suggestions:

Know that bullying and suicide are two distinct issues. “It’s irresponsible to make a direct link to bullying as the only cause of suicide,” Bond notes, “as research tells us that sometimes those at highest risk of suicide are bullies, as well as bullies who are also bullied.” It’s also unfair to directly blame any individual bullies for a suicide, as there are many other factors at play — including any social environment or attitudes in which bullying is reinforced. So focusing only on young people who are bullied as a way to prevent suicide, he says, actually neglects a wide swath of young people who may also be at risk. And fighting suicide along with bullying is vital, considering that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death (after accidents) for young people between the ages of 10 and 24.

Open communication at home. It’s important for parents and caregivers to really engage with kids. “So instead of just asking, ‘How was your day?’ try asking ‘what was the best thing to happen today?’ or ‘what’s been the hardest thing you’ve had to deal with this week?’” Sometimes young people can lose sight of the fact that life is a balance of good and bad, and only focus on the bad. By speaking to kids about both sides, Bond says, you help “confirm the balance.”

Focus on creating safe spaces for youth in schools. Faculty and staffers need to express that they are “safe and accepting,” he notes, and that a young person can feel good coming to them for support — or for nonjudgmental direction toward someone who can provide that support. “Young people often believe they are all alone,” Bond says. “They need to be told that’s not the case.” 

If you or someone you know is in crisis, round-the-clock help is available through the Trevor Project’s Trevor Lifeline (866-488-7386) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).