Another Child Lost to Bullying
BY William McGuinness
May 07 2009 12:00 AM ET
Jaheem Herrera woke up on the morning of April 16 with a knot in his stomach. Over Cocoa Puffs, the 11-year-old told his mother, Masika Bermudez, that he didn't want to go to school, but he seemed more reluctant than sick. He slammed the door on his way out of the family's Decatur, Ga., apartment.
At lunch the knot tightened and swelled so much that he wouldn't eat. He was quiet and in a terrible mood -- a silent anger mixed with fear. His classmates at Dunaire Elementary School often taunted him in the cafeteria. To them, he was gay, a fag, a mama's boy, and a virgin because he had recently moved to Georgia from the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to attorney Gerald Griggs, who now represents the family.
Later he heard someone tease him again and asked his best friend, A.J. Brown, if anyone would miss him if he were to leave. Brown said that he would, and when the final bell of the day sounded, Herrera said "bye" as he climbed into his mother's boyfriend's car. At home Herrera was so frustrated that he could only yell. He was sent to his room to cool off before dinner, but his stomach was already filled. He locked the door, went into the closet, found a cloth belt, and hanged himself silently.
His sister Yerralis's calls at the bedroom door went unheard. When the family finally burst into the room, she ran to claw at the belt and screamed, "Get him down. Get him down." Bermudez held his already-cold body and asked herself questions.
The family put a makeshift shrine on the front door of their two-bedroom apartment and buried him in a white casket with three gold crosses stitched inside. Since Herrera's death, a growing chorus has joined Bermudez in asking how an 11-year-old who loved dancing like Michael Jackson could find his days so afflictive that he would want to end them.
Herrera joins names like Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, Eric Mohat, and Lee Simpson -- youths who took their own lives in response to antigay bullying. Sixty-five percent of middle and high school students surveyed by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network report being bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation, gender expression, race, religion, and other factors, and many of them believe adults can offer no help. Walker-Hoover's mother, Sirdeaner Walker of Springfield, Mass., has called for sweeping reform of school antibullying policies across the country, and Herrera's family has joined the push.