It’s been two years since Masika Bermudez lost her only son Jaheem Herrera, but the heart-wrenching emotions are still raw as if he died yesterday.
“It was like a bad dream, you know,” says the metro Atlanta mother, tears welling in her eyes. “You have your son there after school and in a blink of an eye, he’s not there anymore. The last thing I can remember about my son is with a big smile on his face when I was looking through his report card and then to see him lifeless afterwards. That’s the last image I have of my son every time I close my eyes.”
Jaheem was just 11-years-old when she found him hanged in a closet in their Decatur, Ga., apartment in April of 2009. She says her dark-haired cherub-faced son known for his friendly smile, was bullied to death.
“He got bullied in school, he’d been taunted, he’d been teased, he’d been called gay,” she says. “And that really bothered him, because he used to tell me about it, that he’s not gay. Why [did] they keep calling him gay? It caused a lot of symptoms [for him]. He’d been going through anxiety, depression and he didn’t want to eat. He couldn’t even sleep, you know. And it hurt him very bad.”
Bermudez claims she went to Jaheem’s school, Stone Mountain’s Dunaire Elementary, in an effort to get help for her son seven or eight times in the same school year that he died, but she insists the problem persisted.
DeKalb County Schools hired retired Fulton County Judge Thelma Moore to conduct an independent review of Bermudez’s claims. After a 30-day investigation, the judge concluded that Jaheem was teased at school, but not bullied, and that Bermudez never reported any problems to administrators or teachers. Judge Moore’s review included interviews with more than 50 witnesses from Jaheem’s school.
Bermudez says she has the sign-in sheets from the school office to prove her claims. She also alleges that before returning Jaheem’s personal items to her, administrators cut out the pages from his notebook journal where he detailed the bullying he experienced at school.
“Their response was there was no bullying, you know, and my response to that is that there was bullying,” she says. “My son used to tell me what used to happen to him. There was bullying. There was bullying and he got choked in the restroom. And I’m not, I can’t let that go.”
DeKalb County School System representatives would not comment on the findings that Jaheem was not bullied. Its Department of Student Relations Director Quentin Fretwell, instead, would only comment about its system-wide bullying awareness campaign now in its second year.
“We’re bringing awareness to the entire community; not only to kids, not only to training kids, training administrators and others; but also bringing awareness to the parents, bringing awareness to community leaders, staff members, bring awareness to society in general and saying we all have responsibility,” contends Fretwell.
Bermudez says in May 2009 her former attorney Gerald Griggs filed a neglect complaint against the school system. She claims that she has yet to receive a direct response. She and her colleagues also asked DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James to look into her claims, but she has not gotten a response, she says. Bermudez and her friend Annette Davis Jackson are working on a formal response to the school system’s review, which they say is seriously flawed.
“[DeKalb County Schools] have what is considered disciplinary referrals,” notes Jackson. “The disciplinary referrals [forms that teachers and administrators complete], they don’t even have a check mark that says bullying. So you can just document it as a classroom disturbance and this is very key.”
Jackson says when Jaheem was suspended from school, it was written up as a “classroom disturbance.”
“It said classroom disturbance, only to find out that this was actually a [another student] choking [Jaheem] in the bathroom,” says Jackson. “So, his infraction was classroom disturbance. And no one chronicled it, or documented it as bullying. So you‘ve really got to look at DeKalb County and say, ‘you didn’t really train your teachers and you administrators to properly document bullying.’”
In her report, Judge Moore indicates that in the December 2008 incident that Jackson describes, Jaheem was suspended for fighting with a boy in the school’s bathroom. “Jaheem came in swinging,” Judge Moore has said. She claims the alleged fight was reported to school officials a month after it happened and that it was one of several scuffles in which Jaheem was involved. Bermudez says Jaheem’s best friend told her about what happened – not the school.
“I went to the school the following day and asked the principal about the choking incident, and her response was, ‘oh that incident,’” says Bermudez, “I said ‘what do you mean that incident, my son could’ve died.’ And she said he was getting suspended for it. I asked, ‘why, when he was the one who got choked,’ she said it was because he swung and fought back.”
The start of the school year is extra hard for Bermudez and her family in light of Jaheem’s absence. Bermudez says she tries to be strong for her three daughters who still attend school in DeKalb County, just to the East of Atlanta.
“They’re hurt; that’s something that will never go away,” she says of her three girls. “They miss their brother. They’re always bringing up stories about him. Sometimes we cry together; but in school, regardless of what happened, they’re still doing good.”
Bermudez says she takes solace in knowing that her son’s story inspired state lawmakers two years ago to pass a law beefing up bullying policies at all Georgia schools, a policy that had not been updated since 1980.
The new law:
• Defines bullying more broadly than before.
• Requires local school systems to adopt policies on dealing with bullying.
• Expands the policies to include elementary school students, particularly kindergarten.
• Requires parents to be notified any time their child is bullied or bullies someone else.
• Mandates students who bully in grades six through 12 be placed in an alternative school after the third offense.
Bermudez hopes the law will keep other families from facing a similar ordeal, but she wishes it formally honored Jaheem.
“The same way they have the Amber Alert I think they should have named it the Jaheem Herrera Anti-Bullying Act, so that people can know that because of him it’s been passed and it’s been strengthened,” she says.
Jaheem’s 12-year-old sister Yeiralis hopes it will help protect other kids.
“Well, they’re trying, so far so good,” she says of state lawmakers. “But wherever, what school you go to there’s still going to be bullies.”
She says last year a boy in her class repeatedly teased her about her brother’s death. Her mom says she filed charges with the school resource officer but the school never responded. The boy’s parents eventually withdrew him from the school.
“They picked on me about my brother’s death and teased me about it and just stuff,” she says. “But I ignored them and told the teachers and stuff. And I think that’s what all kids should do; not try to solve it themselves.”
Yeiralis has this advice for children:
“Stop the bullying,” she says. “Tell your parents. Well, don’t take it in your own hands and do something stupid that can hurt your family.”
DeKalb Schools Assistant Director of Student Support Services Jennifer Errion agrees that the law is a positive step. She notes that DeKalb updated its bullying policy well before the recent deadline.
“Well, I think it puts a spotlight on behavior so that it is seen as violation of human rights rather than as a rite of passage,” asserts Errion, who says she’s been doing “school climate” work in DeKalb for about 20 years.
“We’re having all faculty members and all students take an anti-bullying or bullying awareness pledges,” she says of the system’s campaign. “You know, where [students, staff, teachers and administrators] are taking a stand against bullying.”
Errion says DeKalb’s updated policy requires that every incident be investigated. Administrators have “a gradiated level of response” to each incident. Three consecutive bullying episodes don’t have to occur before school leaders are required to take action.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon Bermudez and her daughters flip through Jaheem’s baby pictures in a frayed photo album; the images seem to remind them of happier times.
“He was a quiet little boy,” recalls Bermudez, smiling. “He loved to draw. He loved to dance. His favorite singer and dancer was Michael Jackson. And every time you looked up he’s doing a Michael Jackson dance. He was like a little clown at home.”
The memories are bittersweet for Yeiralis.
“I got on his nerves really, but he was really smart,” she says, as her giggle fades into a grimace. “I don’t know why they bullied him, because there’s nothing to bully him about. He kept telling [school administrators], but they never handled the situation. It just got too out of hand and he had to take his life.”
Bermudez and her friend Jackson will continue to push for justice for her son. Jackson says the need is greater than ever.
“The AJC [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] published a report that showed, that documented on paper, that DeKalb County had over 600 bullying incidences in their county,” she says. “But when you look at it, you have all these students. There’s got to be more incidences of bullying, but they just didn’t report it. So reporting is such a big issue.”
In a school district as large as DeKalb’s, the third largest in Georgia, Jackson says she suspects that there are “far more cases” of bullying. DeKalb has a student enrollment of more than 102,000 students in 143 schools and centers, and employs 13,285 full-time employees.
Bermudez insists that her family and supporters, which she dubs, “team Jaheem,” will not back down without a fight.
“There was bullying,” she says. “Somebody has to be accountable for what happened to my son. I can’t let this go. It might be years from now, but I’m going to still push for justice.”
Bermudez says she does not currently have any legal action pending against the school system because she does not have legal representation. She and her friend say their point-by-point written response to the school system’s review will be released soon.
“Regardless of if he’s not here physically, I feel my son next to me,” she says. “He’s not going to rest. I feel it. He’s not going to rest until I get some justice.”