April 28, 2010

A fatal case of bullying: 'If only he'd known how much he mattered'

Parents of a teenager who died after being bullied at school reach out to others, imploring them not to let it happen again.

By MARTHA IRVINE The Associated Press

CADILLAC, Mich. - Tom Harrison isn't an expert on bullying.

click image to enlarge

P.K. and Tom Harrison stand on the balcony of their home in Boon, Mich. The Harrisons have been on a campaign to prevent bullying since the suicide of their 16-year-old son Alex Harrison, who died in February 2009. A Michigan State Police investigation determined that Alex had been harassed by his peers at Cadillac High School before his death.

The Associated Press

Alex Harrison
click image to enlarge

Alex Harrison

The Associated Press

"I'm just a dad," he says, as he paces back and forth in school gymnasiums, telling students and teachers about his son, whose life ended in suicide last year.

What he can show them, with the help of a slide show, is a bit about Alex Harrison, the quiet, brainy teenager who died at age 16.

What he can tell them is how Alex endured harassment at school, often with few people knowing because his son rarely told anyone, even his parents.

It is a story that resonates with students, especially when news of bullying-related suicide has become more common. In one high-profile case in Massachusetts, several students have been charged in the death of a 15-year-old Irish girl, who killed herself in January.

"Who in this room has ever been bullied?" Harrison recently asked a group of students at Holton High, northwest of Grand Rapids. About half the students raised their hands.

"Who knows someone who's been bullied?" he asked. Almost everyone raised a hand.

It's the kind of response that has driven Alex Harrison's parents to take their private anguish public. His parents want people to know Alex's story so they feel compelled to stand up for others like him. "Do it for me," Harrison implores his audiences. "Do it for Alex."

CHANGE IN CULTURE

On its surface, Cadillac, Mich., is the picture of serenity, a community of about 10,000 in Michigan's northwest lower peninsula.

But here and in school districts across the country, officials see a troubling change in student culture. These days, they say, it's more common for popular kids, good students and athletes to use bullying to jockey for social position. Often, this culture of meanness is amplified by text messages and social networking.

"There really is a dramatic difference in the way students treat one another," says Paul Liabenow, superintendent of Cadillac Area Public Schools.

He knew Alex Harrison from the time he was a primary school student and remembers him as a quirky, likable kid who was "extremely brilliant."

At that age, his parents say Alex was already studying college-level anatomy. age 13, he'd built his own computer, using a book to guide him.

That was about the time his parents got an inkling that their son was being teased. He came home from junior high one day and announced, "I found out it's not cool to be smart."

In high school, his parents knew that a player on his tennis team was giving Alex a hard time, calling him names and forcing him off the practice court. The coach had dealt with it, and they thought that was it.

In fact, in the months before his death, many observed that Alex was coming out of his shell. He'd just gotten his driver's license. He had a girlfriend and a core group of friends. A longtime Boy Scout, he was also on the ski team.

Alex was still intensely private and socially awkward, his parents say. Nor did he give voice to whatever was bothering him.

A MOTHER'S SCREAMS

Harold Falan, a Michigan State Police trooper, was one of the first to arrive at the Harrison home on the morning of Feb. 7, 2009, when Alex took his life. As Falan got out of his car, he heard P.K. Harrison's tortured screams and ran through knee-deep snow into the woods behind their house.

"I've never heard a mother scream like that," Falan said. "It's one of those things you never forget."

He found Alex's mother in the woods, clinging to the body of her only child. Nearby was a shotgun that he and his dad were supposed to have taken skeet shooting that morning. His mom remembers looking at the braces he would've soon gotten off his teeth and thinking, "He's still just a baby."

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