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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

There also was a notebook that Alex had taken into the woods to scribble a few notes to his parents. He told them he loved them and that he was very sorry. "But I can't take it anymore."

Falan talked with students and teachers, whose stories added up to a conclusion that even his own parents didn't know: Alex had been harassed and ostracized at school, mostly by a small group of students.

• Falan's report detailed a lunchroom incident the day before their son died. Alex approached a table of popular students, and one girl used an expletive to tell him to go away, adding, "Don't you know everyone hates you?"

• A group of students taunted him in a secluded hallway. Some frequently chanted "Creeper, Creeper," a nickname they'd given him.

• Another student spread a rumor that Alex was looking in her windows at night, which his parents insist wasn't true.

Though no criminal charges were filed, Liabenow, the Cadillac superintendent, responded by heightening efforts to combat bullying. Teachers and students now attend anti-bullying workshops. More cameras have been added to school hallways. Staff members who monitor those hallways, and the lunchroom, are on "high alert."

Since Alex's death, the Harrisons have received e-mails and Facebook messages from parents in the school district who've said their children are being harassed, too. Liabenow has vowed that each one of those claims will be investigated by his staff.

"We can't avoid having these conversations because the kids are talking about it, anyway," says Ann Cardon, superintendent of Holton Public Schools, where Alex's dad spoke this month. She has made a promise to students who are bullied or witness it: "If you go to an adult, something will happen. That's our commitment to you."

In the meantime, the Harrisons have placed a memorial, a large boulder with a plaque on it and a park bench, next to the lake that borders the high school and junior high campuses.

Sydney Maresh, a good friend of Alex's, wipes away tears as she sits on that bench and talks about him. He'd be surprised at the response to his death, she says, recalling the long line at his wake that stretched out the building and down the sidewalk.

"Everyone says, 'If only he'd known how much he mattered to so many people,"' says Maresh, a 17-year-old junior.

She spoke about losing Alex at her school's recent Challenge Day, a workshop used by schools across the country to encourage unity and respect. It was an impressive moment of togetherness, she says -- one that she hopes will endure at her school.

"Now," she says, "it's up to us."


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