Two southeastern Minnesota teenagers have killed themselves in the past two weeks. While the cases are very different, the suicides prompt an outpour of grief and discussion about bullying.
Thirteen-year-old Rachel Ehmke of Mantorville committed suicide April 29 after she faced bullying at school. Earlier this week, 17-year-old Jay "Corey" Jones jumped off a bridge in Rochester and died. Jones was openly-gay and family and friends say bullying played a role in his death.
Last year, Jones told his dad, Jay Strader, he was gay. Strader immediately noticed a change.
"I just saw a difference in him I saw a smile, I saw a little more energy than actually being down and out and depressed-looking," Strader said. "To me he felt a sign of relief, like, 'Yeah I got over the hard part, right,' you know."
But coming out exposed Jones to other pressures, Strader said, primarily from bullies at school. Jones moved to Minnesota from Chicago two years ago. He lived in Minneapolis for a year before moving down to Rochester.
Strader said his son was comfortable with his sexual orientation. But the teasing Jones encountered at school turned into a constant struggle for him and he was diagnosed with depression.
"I wanted him to let me know what was going on with him. I didn't get a chance to get that," Strader. "I didn't get a chance to find out what was going on inside his head."
Strader said his son's death Sunday has not sunk in yet. It's been an emotional week for his family and him, as well as for many high school students in southeastern Minnesota.
School officials, community activists and students are grappling with how to prevent the bullying that played a role in the deaths of Jones and Ehmke.
Harassment and bullying were likely factors in Ehmke's death, said officials at the Dodge County Sheriff's Office, however no one will face charges in her death.
Officials say there is no direct evidence that bullying played a role in Jones' death, according to Rochester Police spokesman Brian Winters. However, Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Munoz acknowledges Jones had been working with a school counselor and administrators to address bullying at Century High School.
"There was some form of bullying going on, but the school was on top of it and working with him on this and working with those who were involved in the situation," Munoz said.
Munoz declined to comment on details of the bullying, but Jones' classmates paint a nuanced picture of some of the struggles the openly-gay, black teen faced at school.
Sophomore Joshua Street met Corey at the school's Gay Straight Alliance. As he sat in his living room with a group of friends, Street recalls a time when the two were harassed.
"I remember one time when me and Corey were holding hands in the hallway once... one of the seniors threw a bottle at one of us and they yelled the word 'fag' and Corey just wanted to go back there and just beat them up," Street said. "I was like, 'Corey, no. They're not worth it.' "
Sophomore Lillian Simmons said these sorts of anti-gay remarks are common at the school. She said Jones told her recently he was having a tough time dealing with the comments.
"I remember him saying something to me, like 'I just don't know what I'm going to do anymore,' "Simmons said. "I feel really terrible because I feel like I should have started paying more attention to him and being really concerned about him, but I guess I just didn't really think about it at the time."
Simmons is troubled by Jones' death but said school officials worked hard to help him.
"I don't think we've done enough. We have to let kids know that it's okay to feel bad that they're being bullied and that they can report it and they don't have to go through that," Simmons said. "We haven't done enough and people recognize that and we're trying to fix that right now."
District leaders say they are doing everything they can to help students who might be suicidal. A crisis team has been at the school since Monday to support grieving student and staff. In the community, church youth groups have conducted forums to talk about ways to identify and prevent bullying and suicide. The Rochester Post-Bulletin last week published a front-page editorial calling for an end to bullying.
Since 2007, the Rochester school district has used a bullying policy modeled from the private Minnesota School Boards Association. An updated version of that policy is pending approval from the school board.
Superintendent Munoz acknowledges bullying takes places in Rochester schools, but said there are often multiple factors that drive a person to suicide. He said while the district's bullying policy is instrumental in setting a tone, it is up to students and staff to make it work.
"I don't think you can ever possibly cover every possible topic or issue that somebody could be bullied for. To me it's all about the respect thing. If we're not treating each other respectfully, then we need to deal with it," Munoz said. "It's all about providing a safe environment for our students and when I say that, it's not just physical safety. It has to be emotional safety as well."
While schools are not always an inviting place for students who want to dress or act differently, the district should not be expected to be the only player to address mental health issues of students," Rochester Diversity Council Youth Manager Vangie Castro said.
Castro, who also sits on the Governor's Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying, describes the group's recent visit to Rochester. Only 15 adults and 12 students showed up.
"I don't know why it needs to take such extreme measure for us to be able to know that there is something wrong happening and that we can do something about it if we just all participate, if we all just show up," Castro said. "That's all it really takes, is for people to show up and to listen and to ask questions and want to do something — not when a child dies but when a child needs us. When they're still alive."
Strader said school officials did everything they could to try to stop the bullying his son was facing, but he cautions kids to think hard before they say things to each other.
"Some people can't take it. We just say things that hurt other kids. We know what we're doing, just to get a laugh," Strader said. "Some kids can't take it. A lot of stuff you can't take."
Funeral services for Jones will be conducted on Saturday in Chicago. His dad is planning a vigil in Rochester in a few weeks.
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