I’ve been a journalist a lot longer than I’d care to admit (a lot of people mistake me for younger), so admittedly after a while the articles I write sometimes begin to blur together. However, one thing’s for sure: the name Jaheem Herrera will forever remain etched in my mind. I remember clearly the first news reports of this metro Atlanta boy’s suicide in 2009. The images of his mother, heartbroken and sobbing splashed across my television screen aren’t easy to erase.
I was honored to be among the first people Masika Bermudez agreed to speak to after her son’s untimely death. While on assignment for People Magazine, I managed to interview her by phone days before her big The Oprah Winfrey Show interview, alongside the mother of Carl Hoover another alleged bullying victim. Once she returned to Atlanta, Bermudez graciously agreed to talk to me in person. Her grief loomed heavy and thick like a bloated storm cloud, as she walked me through her modest Decatur, Ga., apartment. Jaheem’s humanity became all too real as I stood in front of the bedroom closet where he tragically ended his own life – a short nine years in total. Flipping through his school journal book, I couldn’t help but notice that the pencil drawings scribbled throughout told the story of a boy steeped in pain.
No matter where you stand on Jaheem’s death – whether you think he was bullied to death like his mother asserts or that he took his own life for other
￼reasons as a DeKalb County Schools review suggests – the fact of the matter is that his story helped shine a spotlight on brutal bullying practices.
It also touched a lot of lives and inspired Georgia lawmakers two years ago to pass a law beefing up bullying policies in all the state’s schools. For that, we should all be grateful to this cherub-faced little boy who loved to practice flips on a patch of grass in front his home, tease his three sisters and imitate Michael Jackson’s dance moves before erupting into a fit of giggles.
I hope you, too, will find this multi-part series informative, engaging and enlightening. Coordinating this bullying series, a partnership between Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE), has given me the opportunity to reconnect with Bermudez and her family and to educate myself even more about the lingering impact that bullying imposes on our community and society overall. For that too, I am truly grateful.
It is important to note that by definition, bullying always involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time. There must be an imbalance of power or strength; it’s not two equals experiencing conflict. Bullying is not just physical; it’s verbal and emotional as well. And the advent of social media, chat rooms and texting has expanded its reach. The effects of bullying can reverberate throughout a victim’s entire life. Bullying does not stop with childhood. The victim/aggressor patterns can last a lifetime. Bullies are everywhere – from home to the workplace.
Parents, educators and the community overall must also know that we all can prevent bullying before it ever happens, by promoting an environment of acceptance for other people’s differences at home and in the classroom. This means taking inventory of personal biases and taking steps not to pass them consciously and unconsciously on to children. This also means communicating clearly to them that no form of bullying will be tolerated. They should know in advance that the consequences would be stiff if it were ever discovered that he or she had been engaging in it, even as a passive bystander. Don’t make excuses for bullies — make them accountable for their actions.