In the wake of her 9-year-old son’s suicide, Leia Pierce is asking for love.
“Will you do my son and I a favor?” she wrote to The Daily Beast, when asked about the tragic loss of her son Jamel Myles who, as The Denver Post reported, killed himself last week after allegedly experiencing anti-gay bullying at his elementary school. “Stand together as equals and show love to everyone, with acceptance of everyone.”
Acceptance shouldn’t be a tall order for elementary school environments, but unfortunately anti-LGBT victimization is common even in the early grades.
“Playgrounds and Prejudice,” a 2012 report from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, found that half of elementary school teachers surveyed “often” hear their students use the word “gay” as a pejorative. Over a quarter of elementary school students said that they had “at least sometimes” overheard students use slurs like “fag” or “lesbo.”
Many students also reported that other kids talked about “things that boys should not do or should not wear because they are boys” and “things that girls should not do or should not wear because they are girls.”
GLSEN knows all too well from the organization’s research on older students what the effects of this anti-LGBT bullying and exclusion are likely to be.
“We see that students experiencing higher levels of victimization are reporting to us that they have lower levels of self-esteem, lower levels of school belonging, higher levels of depression and mental health concerns,” Ikaika Regidor, GLSEN’s director of education and youth programs, told The Daily Beast. “It’s our job to lower that victimization.”
Pierce told local news station KDVR earlier this week that Jamel, who attended Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, came out as gay over the summer. “He went to school and was gonna tell people he’s gay because he’s proud of himself,” she said.
Jamel also talked about his gender expression before his death, Pierce told KDVR.
According to her, the child said, “I know you buy me boy stuff because I’m a boy, but I’d rather dress like a girl.” After that conversation, as the Post reported, Pierce allowed her son to wear fake fingernails for his first day back at Shoemaker last week.
If Jamel was at the start of a journey of self-discovery, it is sadly one that he will not get the chance to finish in life.
“When you think about elementary-age young people, some of them might not have the language to fully articulate what exactly that identity means to them,” said Regidor. “So that sometimes might look like operating outside of our ideas of what a ‘traditional’ gender roles or norms are.”
The Human Rights Campaign tweeted about the suicide, offering their condolences to the family and sharing the numbers of suicide hotlines for LGBT people.
In response to the tragedy, GLSEN told The Daily Beast that it’s never too early for schools to adopt LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying measures—and to implement other policies that would signal to youth who are LGBT or questioning that they are welcome at school.
Even if they don’t always have the vocabulary to describe who they are, says GLSEN, they need to know that it will be OK to be openly LGBT.
“They’re not too young to see themselves included in curriculums,” said Regidor. “They’re not too young to feel accepted and safe to learn at school. There is no age restriction to feeling safe and included in your school. That’s the work.”
Part of that work is ensuring that state anti-bullying laws specifically enumerate both sexual orientation and gender identity as categories that are protected. According to the Movement Advancement Project, 20 states and D.C.—including Colorado—have passed such “Safe School Laws.”
Slightly more states—24—have no specific protections for LGBT students in their bullying prohibitions. So far, no federal legislation has required states to explicitly list sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-bullying policies.
But schools don’t have to wait for governments to act in order to protect their students. GLSEN says that being proactive is the best approach to help reduce the victimization that LGBT youth are likely to face in school.
“We have model policies at the school level, at the district level, and all the way up,” Regidor told The Daily Beast. “So you don’t need to wait for the next person to do something. We’re happy to work with whomever to try to implement those policies.”
The sad details of Jamel’s death are still being felt across the local school community. As the Post reported, the Denver Coroner’s Office has determined that the 9-year-old died by suicide.
As the Post further reported, the school district has sent grief counselors to the school to speak with teachers, staff, and parents—and principal Christine Fleming invited parents to the school earlier this week to talk about the loss.
In response to questions posed to Shoemaker, Denver Public Schools issued a lengthy statement to The Daily Beast, sharing their “deepest sympathies” with both the boy’s family and the school community.
“At DPS, we are deeply committed to ensuring that all members of our school community are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or transgender status,” the statement read, noting that although the agency’s “policies and practices” already “reflect this commitment” on the level of training and policy, there is still always room to grow.
“We also know, however, that we as a society have a long way to go to ensure that no child ever is bullied or treated with disrespect because of their self-identification,” the statement continued. “All of us—parents, educators, and fellow students—need to lead the way in setting an example of love, respect, and dignity for our LGBTQ+ youth.”
That’s the same positive message that Pierce says the public should take away from her son’s passing.
Asked if she had anything else to share, the grieving mother said simply, “Tell this world my son said they’re beautiful, smart, and they can do it.”