Bullying has led to a suicide epidemic at my alma mater

Reading that bullying is so bad at Mentor High School, my alma mater, that suicide has become an epidemic makes me feel a wave of emotions — shock, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion. Initially I can’t believe that four people in the last few years have killed themselves because bullying at Mentor High is so bad — but after thinking about it for a bit, the atmosphere there is ripe for intense and unregulated hate.

If you aren’t familiar with Mentor, it’s a suburb of Cleveland that has a little more than 50,000 people. It’s mostly white — and when I say mostly, that’s an understatement — Census data show that it’s 97.3 percent white. The second highest ethnicity in Mentor is Asian, with 1.2 percent. Mentor is not a diverse place — it’s a place where if you’re different, you stand out — whether it’s your ethnicity, your class (median income is $57,230), or your personality.

Mentor High is gigantic — it used to only be grades 10-12, and there were more than 2,000 students there. Now it’s grades 9-12, with almost 3,000 students. My graduating class had 831 people in it. Not only is this crowd of teenagers very one-dimensional, but it’s also huge — not fitting in becomes exponentially more noticeable, and the pool of bullies becomes larger.

Bullying in school is unfortunately common, but bullying at Mentor High is out of control. I wasn’t bullied at Mentor High — I was picked on in elementary school and junior high, but never to the extent that these teens were. People didn’t throw food at me, push me down the stairs, smack me, or knock books out of my hand. But I don’t chalk that up to Mentor not being a place where bullying thrives — I chalk that up to mostly taking AP or honors classes where everyone was a nerd and becoming good at fitting into the crowd.

Each of the teen’s story is a little different — one was being called a slut, one was being called gay, one was being bullied for her learning disability, and one was enduring name-calling. Two of these teens killed themselves within three weeks of each other. What they all have in common is that, even though half of them had been pulled out of school in favor of online classes — the bullying was so intense that it made these young people’s lives unbearable.

My mom works at the cafeteria of a local community college where Eric Mohat took classes (many students took post-secondary education classes in high school that would transfer to college). She remembered he would always come in and order an entire pepperoni pizza, probably because his nickname was “Twiggy” and he looked too thin to be able to eat the entire thing.

When she found out he had shot himself, she was extremely upset. She recalled that on the day he killed himself, he came through the cafeteria line as always, but when he went to pay for his food, he just had a drink. She thought this was bizarre, since he always got the pizza, and she noticed that he looked especially down. She lamented to me that she should have said something to him, and wondered if she could have done something to brighten his mood and stop him from taking his own life.

But it shouldn’t be up to my mom or other strangers to these kids to stop the bullying or convince these kids not to kill themselves. If a total stranger can be intuitive enough to see that Eric was distraught, why aren’t teachers and schools more aware? Probably because large class sizes make it more difficult for teachers to notice students individually; teachers and all education workers are overworked and underpaid; the Internet — particularly Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter make bullying even more prevalent, viral, and embarrassing (and unseen in schools); and schools aren’t equipped to deal with bullying, or perhaps have decided it is kids “just being kids” — the rule rather than the exception.

It’s important to note that, unfortunately, Mentor High exemplifies, rather than serves as an outlier for, suicides among young people. There have been four recent suicides because of gay bullying, which came to light after Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University, jumped off the George Washington bridge in New York because his roommate outed him online, live streaming video of Tyler being intimate with another guy. One of the Mentor students was very publicly bullied because people thought he was gay, and people suspected another of the students was also gay but it’s unclear whether she was bullied because of it.

Mentor is a breeding ground for bullying, and anyone who denies it is either living in denial or was of the crowd that fit in to the preppy, white, middle-class atmosphere. You’re not a terrible person if you didn’t get bullied — but if you did the bullying, then yeah, you are a terrible person. It’s disgusting how teens treat each other, and the age at which I hear about teens killing themselves keeps getting lower and lower — some don’t even make it to their teens without committing suicide to escape the bullying.

Yes, teenagers are hormonal. Teenagers are awkward. But they shouldn’t be feeling so trapped in the bullying and the negativity that they feel the best solution is to just stop living. Bullying needs to be more heavily punished. Teachers and counselors and aides need to be trained to spot bullying and catch it before it consumes these kids. These kids need to feel like they have someone to talk to, that their complaints won’t be ignored or just lead to more bullying.

Parents need to be more involved — and I mean the parents of the children who are doing the bullying. Parents of the bullied can only do so much, the most extreme being home-schooling or online classes. But what about the kids doing the bullying? It shouldn’t be up to the person being bullied to just leave because they don’t fit in — what kind of message does that send to the student? That the only way they’ll find peace is being alone? How does that help them?

This blog might jump around, but I’m writing it fueled by the emotions that I described initially. I know so many people, my peers, who could’ve been these people. I watched them get bullied, heard about them get bullied, and myself even would gossip about them. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but peers standing up and against the bullying helps those being bullied feel less alone; bullies getting stricter punishment helps; schools taking bullying more seriously helps; parents taking their kids as bullies more seriously helps; and not enabling the behavior by expecting it to happen helps.

Like Ellen said in the video I linked to above, “One death lost in this senseless way is tragic. Four is a crisis.” The Mentor school system can’t ignore that suicide is a big problem, and it needs to be addressed immediately — especially at the high school. And just because students aren’t killing themselves doesn’t mean other school systems should breathe a sigh of relief — everyone should be on alert for bullying, because people can still harm themselves without ending their lives.


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4 Responses to “Bullying has led to a suicide epidemic at my alma mater”

  1. dude Says:

    everything about this blog is weird and wrong.

    first of all you make a huge point about how your hometown is not racially diverse enough but none of the kids you mentioned killed themselves for being black. if everybody at your high school was black then the gay kids would have still killed themselves. If half of your high school was Native American and a quarter black and a quarter white then the gay kids would have still killed themselves. Race doesn’t really play a card when it comes to suicide over sexual preference so I don’t see how the racial mix in your school makes it a particular breeding ground for unregulated hate.

    Secondly 3,000 people is a lot of people. If you put that many people in any situation then a certain percentage is always going to kill themselves. Its just statistics. My point is that you put a lot of emphasis on your particular school being a special case for teen suicide but you make points about it that actually make it seem pretty predictable and ordinary. In the last few years four people killed themselves there but I bet if you researched even further back you’d find that the number is probably consistent with the population increase there or other factors involved. As factors surrounding that school change then so will the rate of suicide. Like I said it’s just statistics. If nothing about your school had changed in the last few years except for the rate of suicide then that would be an alarming case worthy of attention. but thats not the case here. Why don’t you look up the rate of suicide among gay teens. It’s pretty high regardless of what high school you go to especially for whites. And my guess is according to your diversity stats that they were all white. (just a guess)

    There is so much emphasis on bullying being the cause of their suicide you make it sound like murder. as a matter of fact you even call for heavier punishment of bullying. The truth is that it takes a lot for someone to kill themselves. It is never just one thing. A sane rational person does not kill themselves. It doesn’t matter how bad they are bullied. So writing a whole blog about bullying being out of control is useless. The victims in this case were mentally unstable. I bet if you asked them why they want to kill themselves right before they did their answer wouldn’t be “because everybody picks on me.” As a matter of fact I bet they probably wouldn’t want to be memorialized as such shallow people that they killed themselves for one reason and one reason alone. At least do them the honor of counting them as individual people with complex emotions and patterns of thought. How did you decide that bullying was the cause of their deaths anyway? Did they leave a note stating it or is that what some dumb news reporter said to scare a bunch of people in to buying more newspapers and eating up his load of made up junk? You know what I just looked up a bunch of high risk factors for potential suicide victims and guess what wasn’t listed…bullying. Big surprise.

    One last fact about suicide is that it becomes more common when people are expose to it. So in a sense suicide is always a crisis. So if one person killed themselves then it increases the suicide risk of everyone around them so what I’m getting at is that the other three people you mentioned instantly became at much higher risk for suicide following the first one and not because of bullying.

    Maybe instead of parents concentrating on cracking down on bullying they should educate themselves first on causes of suicide instead of attacking problems that don’t exist in a fashion that resembles a bunch of ignorant hillbillies with pitchforks.

    • cathyjwilson Says:

      My town being not racially diverse is exactly the problem — people in my town are mostly the same, and they don’t regularly interact with people of different races or cultures. This uniform identity is the foundation for why any other variances are immediately noticed — everyone is so tuned into the uniform and typical teen that anyone who is slightly different is immediately a pariah because the town is full of a lot of people (including the bullies) who are used to being around people who are exactly the same and exactly like them. If the town were racially diverse, the idea of “difference” might not be as big of an issue.

      • dude Says:

        don’t you think this is a little naive? by your optimistic logic if people of different races are gathered together in a community in equal proportion then those people will naturally adopt a tolerance for differences between their peers. That’s INSANE! Tolerance is not learned through exposure. The world does not work like that. If it did than there wouldn’t be any racism in New York City or L.A. I would say those are some pretty tight knit racially diverse places and hate crimes happen there everyday if not every hour of the day. And once again even if you got people to be tolerant of other races that doesn’t mean that they will be tolerant of gays or foreigners or people of different religions. Think about it. If the kids racial tolerance had anything at all to do with the bullying then it would have been the black kids who committed suicide. If the uniformity of your town is the cause of bullying then why isn’t everybody in your town a bully? Why aren’t you a bully? Did you take frequent trips to Compton when you were a child and that’s where you learned your tolerance? Probably not. Linking your towns racial population to it’s suicide rate among teens is a really really thin stretch. As if in order to get kids to stop committing suicide you would just force other kids that don’t like them to hang out with black people. Pretty weak when you think it through.

  2. Amy Appleby Says:

    I would first like to say that I am a former student of Mentor High School I graduated in 1996. Bullying has been going on for years. I am so saddened everytime I hear about another suicide coming from this school. WhenI read the story about thegirl just a few years ago plead and cried to her mother every morning not to go, I was that girl when I went to shore jr. high. I am 32 years old right now and that story gave me flash backs towhen I was forced every day to go school. If you look up my school attendance record for 7th and 8th grade you would all be amazed at how many days of school I missed because I was scared to go to school. I read some stories about the suicides and they were all so familiar, because I was not an athlete or a cheerleader teachers did not care. It got so bad that my mother had to pull me out of school in the middle of 10th grade. Mr. Vanorsdal was the vice principle at shore jr high when this all started with me and later he became the principle at mentor high school. I don’t know how many times my mother called the school to talk to mr. vanorsdal to tell him whats going on and nothing ever happened. I am still very bitter about this I guess because it tore my family apart, my mother almost got in trouble with the courts because I refused to go to school, I started using drugs to numb myself and escape my reality, I was completely withdrawn, always trying to hurt myself. No one up atthe schools would do anything to help me. The constant name calling from the popular girls, I was called amy appleslut, amy applewhore, amy appletree, my books dumped out of my handsand kicked into the boys bathroom. Stuff thrown at me daily, a girl trying to push me out of a second story window. Who knew I would be reliving all those horrible moments in 2010 because of reading about those other kids. My heart breaks for those families who have had to suffer the loss of their child because ofother kids being cruel. How much traumatizing situations does a child have to go through when is enough, enough? How mkuch torment do you guys think children can handle? The adults that are put in charge to teach these children who parents entrust their kids to every school day need to start doing something, not just sweeping it under the rug. Bullyingis not going away and from the stories it looks as if its getting worse. I barley survived it and kids today aren’t. And for those teachers who know who they are are just as bad as the children bullying actually inmy opinion are worse and should go to jail for neglect in the situations where a child has taken their life. Adults are to PROTECT ALL CHILDREN as most of the time children can not do it them selves. I feel for those parents who for the rest of their lives have to wonder what happened? why they couldn’ty protect their child? why they schools couldn’t and did not? why their child? that is a messed up feeling for parent. I love you all and I pray for all these families for the strength they are going to need to make it with out their children.

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