By Matt Pearce and Melanie Mason
Two students from separate schools committed suicide within days of each other this month _ which is National Bullying Prevention Month _ and both boys apparently had been bullied. Now, parents are asking questions not just about bullying but about anti-bullying videos, which both schools aired shortly before the incidents.
Brad Lewis' son Jordan, 15, a sophomore at Carterville High School in Carterville, Ill., killed himself Oct. 17 by shooting himself in the chest.
Jordan left an affectionate, apologetic note that, according to Lewis, concluded with: "Bullying has caused me to do this. Those of you know who you are."
Lewis criticized investigators for not pursuing the bullies more aggressively, but he also turned some of his questions toward his son's school, which showed an anti-bullying video to students the day before Jordan killed himself.
"All I know is they were discussing the bullying, and showing kids bullying, and at the end of the show they showed pictures of kids that took their lives," Lewis said. "When a child or a person is at the end of their rope, and they don't think there's anywhere to go, and they don't think anyone's doing anything about it, and they see something on video, and they relate.
"You're dealing with kids. Kids don't look at the long-term situation _ they look at the short term, they look at the pain they feel now, how can they end that pain."
Carterville Unified School District Superintendent Bob Prusator said he didn't know which program had been shown, but he thought it was one that many schools across the U.S. use. He said the schools' anti-bullying efforts would continue to be evaluated.
"It's part of the ongoing challenges of public school systems," Prusator said. "I think every school district in America would agree, the issue of how we keep kids safe in all aspects ... there's a lot of different levels. We feel a lot of pressure to keep our kids safe, and so we're always evaluating things, but we also need feedback from people. ... Particularly on social media stuff, we just don't know what kids are experiencing."
Prusator said school officials had never received reports of Jordan being bullied at school. He said local law officers were still investigating.
Last week in Sparks, Nev., 12-year-old Jose Reyes brought a gun to school, shot two classmates and killed a teacher before killing himself.
Those who knew Jose said sometimes he would cry and say people were calling him names. One witness to the shootings recalled Jose saying, "You guys ruined my life, so I'm going to ruin yours."
On Oct. 11, the documentary "Bully" reportedly was shown to all Sparks Middle School students during their sixth-period classes. The film, students said, depicted two stories in which bullying drove one student to commit suicide by hanging and another to bring a gun on a school bus.
Some students and parents say the parallels are disturbing.
"I don't understand why that would be shown in the schools," said Veronica Rudd, whose daughters are in seventh and eighth grades at Sparks Middle School.
"They are trying to be very proactive (about bullying), but I don't know if it's coming across to the kids that way. Because at this age, children can be influenced by many things."
Washoe County School District officials did not respond to requests for comment about the video. Lt. Erick Thomas of the Sparks Police Department said the film was part of the investigation into the Oct. 21 shootings.
"Detectives are reviewing the video to see if it has any bearing on the investigation," Thomas said.
Research is mixed on the benefits of bullying prevention programs in schools.
One 2010 scholarly review of existing research estimated that school prevention programs reduced bullying more than 20 percent.
A different study released by University of Texas-Arlington researchers came to the opposite conclusion, noting that their data showed that "students attending schools with bullying prevention programs were more likely to have experienced peer victimization, compared to those attending schools without bullying prevention programs."
The Texas study cautioned that the programs may not be causing increased bullying and said more research was necessary to draw conclusions.
The issue presents a significant policy problem for educators.
Bullying victims are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teenagers. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control statistics from 2000 to 2010, 300 to 450 kids ages 12 to 15 killed themselves every year _ about one a day.
Bullying decreases as students get older, research suggests. But suicide rates rise throughout the teenage years, peaking in the early 20s.
Brad Lewis said parents from around the country contacted him after his son's suicide. They were concerned not just about bullying, he said, but about bullying videos.
Lewis wondered whether parents should be notified before schools show such videos _ or should see the films first. "Sometimes it might be graphic," he said, "but it can affect people, especially kids that are in a dark place."
(c)2013 Los Angeles Times