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03.30.10

Life and Death at Suicide High

Why have five students in a small Ohio town killed themselves? Lucinda Franks on how bullying is taking lives.

Plus, read Parts I and III of Lucinda Franks' series on teen bullying: How Teens Bully to Death and How to Stop a Bully.

A few years ago, a Bosnian family named Vidovic came to Euclid, Ohio, to escape persecution by Serbs in an embattled region. Realizing their dream of reaching freedom in America put them in debt and forced both parents to take two jobs. However, to see their youngest daughter, Sladjana, so full of excitement as she entered the local high school made it all seem worthwhile. She was a lovely girl, with rosy skin and long blond hair, but she had an accent, she wore strange clothes, and her hairstyle was not exactly contemporary. She was ignored and taunted so continuously that one day she wrote a four-page suicide note. Her sister found her hanging out the window, a rope around her neck.

Her bewildered and devastated parents couldn’t understand what had happened to Sladjana. “We came here to be safe,” her father said. “We thought we were going to have a better life.”

In nearby Mentor, Ohio, outside East Cleveland, broken children like Sladjana abounded. There had been five suicides in two years at the Mentor middle and high schools. And the area was far from unique. Thousands of schools, public and private, are ruled not by their principals but by the bullies, and have had at least one, if not multiple, adolescent suicides.

“We came here to be safe,” Sladjana’s Vidovic’s father said. “We thought we were going to have a better life.”

The recent case of Phoebe Prince, a pretty 15-year-old girl in South Hadley, Massachusetts, who killed herself after being brutally harrassed, has helped shine light on “bullycides”— suicides committed by students tormented into feeling worthless. The case made headlines earlier this week when the South Hadley district attorney took the unprecedented step of filing charges against nine teenagers who allegedly harassed Phoebe.

An estimated 50,000 teens attempt to kill themselves a year; 5,000 succeed. Some 250,000 a month report having been physically attacked, and 30 to 60 percent say they have become prey of online aggressors.

Lucinda Franks: How Teens Bully to Death Eric Mohat, a brilliant and quirky teenager, painfully thin at 6-foot-1 and 112 pounds, was an oddity at Mentor High and proud of it. The other kids called him “Twiggy” and he just laughed. They called him a nerd and it brought to mind Bill Gates, so he considered it a badge of honor. “He was an unusually secure boy,” his mother, Janis Mohat, explains. “He just let things roll off him. He did what he wanted, and when he was teased, he turned it into a joke.

“He liked pink. That was his favorite color,” Janis continues, almost defiantly. He took to Velcroing a stuffed lemur to his arm, christening it George. George was loved by the girls in Eric’s Spanish class and he was given his own seat. “I told Eric,” Janis says, “you march to a different drummer, and sometimes it’s a tom-tom.”

It wasn’t long, however, before the boys who dominated Mentor High School began to take notice, salivating at the very sight of this oddball who played with a stuffed animal and favored clothes the color of cherry blossoms. They teased him mercilessly when he wore pink bands on his braces on Valentine’s Day. “Well, at least they match my shirt,” was his retort.

Soon his tormentors escalated their aggression. “They grabbed his glasses off his face and broke them,” Janis recalls. “They shoved him, snatched his books, distracted him in class by harassing him with flying objects.”

Meanwhile, Eric Mohat talked a depressed friend, Bryn Wolanski, out of committing suicide. He hugged her, constantly smiled at her, and he stood up and told off the kids who were being mean to her. “He was a light to me in my darkest time,” she says.

Two weeks later, on March 29, 2007, just after he turned 17, Eric killed himself. Bryn went into shock. “What, this wonderful guy? Why? What did I miss? Why didn’t I notice and help him? I was so guilty. He seemed to be such a positive guy.”

Sobbing students filled two tables in the cafeteria at Mentor High School. They were excused from their first class. “It made us sick,” Bryn said.

“Our minds were so blown that people began to be kinder to each other, trying to make others happy. I know his death turned my life around. I vowed to cut through the silence of people I loved and find out what’s wrong. I want to be like he was.”

Other friends of Eric Mohat are more bitter. “I hope Mentor High burns to the ground,” says 19-year-old Brandon Hughes. He too had decided to take his own life, written a goodbye note, and ranged around the house looking fruitlessly for a weapon. “What I was doing was crying ‘Help,’ and I’m mature enough now to know that it would have been a superbad idea,” says Brandon, who has since graduated from Mentor and has a job.

It was the preppy kids who were Brandon’s nemeses. “Everyone had to look like everyone else and act like them and if you didn’t you were the worst thing in the world. They were more than snotty. And then, if you start to get cyberbullied, it can come out of nowhere. You don’t know who is doing it or why, it could be anyone, even your friends, they show their face and then they disappear.

“I think this is what finally got to Eric.”

“If I had only known how much he was suffering,” Janis laments. “But I told him to hang on, he only had a few more weeks of school.”

According to a police report, Eric was seen uncharacteristically crying in the hall some time before he killed himself. An administrator and a teacher were seen averting their eyes and hurrying off.

“Why don’t you go home and shoot yourself!” one of the bullies said.

And that is exactly what he did.

(Repeated calls to the principal of Mentor High and the superintendant asking them to comment on the suicides of Eric Mohat and other children, as well as the accusations that the school did nothing about bullying, were not returned.)

Why do these children, whom psychologists have found to be exquisitely sensitive but mostly normal and untroubled, take such a drastic step? “It’s like there is no escape,” Brandon says. “You can’t walk away, you have to go to school and interact with these people every single day. It wears you down. The grown-ups, it seems, agree with the bullies since they sometimes just laugh at it. And then suddenly one day, you wake up and you can’t feel anything but the pain and you are convinced that you are just a piece of nothing.”

Because the schools have been slow to take action, parents—particularly those who have lost children to suicide—are finally starting to take action. Brenda High had a son, Jared, who was tortured by bullies at the McLoughlin Middle school in Pasco, Washington. At 12, Jared High was just 98 pounds, and very sensitive. “When he was little, he would hold the cat in his lap and stroke it endlessly,” Brenda High recalls. “Once I remember he gave his hamburger to a homeless man. He used to cry when he had a fight with his sister over who would use the bathroom.”

On May 6, 1998, an older boy, a football player, bullied him in the school gym. The boy punched, kicked, and threw Jared against the brick walls. The next day his friends teased him about getting beat up. And the principal dismissed the incident, calling it a “fight between two kids.” He suspended them both.

“After the attack, Jared kept throwing up and we took him to doctors to examine neck and back pain,” Brenda continues. “He fell into a depression that lasted all summer. He couldn’t sleep. He began to hear voices in his head, which one doctor attributed to his injuries. I think he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The violence of the attack, he didn’t hardly know what had happened to him—after that he said he was just shot.”

His words were prescient. Five months later, on September 29, 1998, just a few days after his 13th birthday, Jared took his father’s handgun and ended his short life.

Brenda turned her devastation into action. She formed BullyPoliceUSA [LINK: www.bullypolice.org], which monitors and publicizes teen suicides and is a watchdog for the anti-bullying laws of all the 41 states that have now adopted them. “We give them a grade, from A+ to F,” Brenda says. The toughest laws penalize schools that don’t obey the stringent statutes to the letter.

“It’s not the children’s faults, it’s the adults’,” Brenda says. “The ones who don’t take responsibility, who don’t teach the kids right and wrong; the school boards and the superintendents and the principals and the parents. If they took charge, we would not need laws.

“It is harder to change the attitude of the adults than it is to change the attitude of kids. More and more wild kids are coming into the system, the very top of a bunch of weeds that you can see. We can look at our lawns and can decide to cut the tops off the weeds, but unless the grown-ups pull them out by the roots, more and more kids will learn how to terrorize.”

Lucinda Franks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who was on the staff of the New York Times and has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review and Magazine. Her latest book is My Father's Secret War, about her father, who was a spy for the OSS during World War II.