Jaheem Herrera’s Suicide Inspired Lawmakers To Beef Up Georgia’s School Bullying Policies, His Mother Says She’s Still Fighting For Justice
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.”