Just posted an article on disciplesworld.com about the response of a Disciples of Christ congregation and several other faith groups to the suicide of 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera. On April 16, Herrera, a fifth-grader, came home from school, went up to his room, and hung himself with a fabric belt. According to his mother and friends, he was the victim of constant bullying, teased for his accent, and called “gay” by some of his classmates at Dunaire Elementary in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Can churches and parents do more to stop bullying? Photo: Steven Hernandez (Creative Commons license)

Can churches and parents do more to stop bullying? Photo: Steven Hernandez (Creative Commons license)

After his death, First Christian Church of Decatur, Georgia, co-hosted a prayer service on April 24. During the service, religious leaders called on communities of faith to tone down the anti-gay and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

After Jaheem’s death, several parents complained that their children were also the victims of bullying at the school. But the DeKalb County school system’s report, made public on May 20, said there had been no bullying, just the “typical” name calling and teasing (which begs the question, what then is bullying, especially in a school with a ‘zero tolerance policy’?)

The Atlanta Journal Constitution covered the story extensively. As I was reading through its archives, I came across an article by Celeste Lawrence about Jaheem’s burial service, held in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where his family had emigrated from. This last paragraph just about broke my heart:

In a final show of solidarity, Jaheem’s family and friends followed the hearse to his burial site farther down the hill. The blue and white balloons that decorated the church had been distributed to the children in attendance and were released simultaneously in the air during the graveside ceremony. The brisk island trade winds carried them higher and farther away until they were mere specks in the distance, leaving behind Masika Bermudez’s muffled screams to pierce the silence as Jaheem’s coffin was finally lowered into the ground and covered with the first sprinklings of dirt.

Jaheem’s mother, Masika Bermudez, appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show along with the parent of a boy in Massachusetts who also hung himself after being bullied.  One of the guests on Oprah’s program was Dorothy Espelage, a professor at the University of Illinois who conducts research and has published books and articles on the subject of bullying. Espelage notes the prevalence of ‘sexual bullying’ and calls it a form of sexual harrassment.

What can churches do about bullying, and about sexual bullying? Should they do anything?

What can parents do if their own child is the target of bullying, sexual bullying, or other forms of sexual harrassment at school? How do we keep our own children from becoming bullies or from joining in when others are teasing or putting people down? Do we just stand by and say, kids will be kids?


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