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Martha Irvine, AP National Writer, Published May 03 2010

Suicide exposes troubling trend in bullying

CADILLAC, Mich. – Tom Harrison isn’t an expert on bullying, even by his own estimation.

“I’m just a dad,” he says, as he paces back and forth in school gymnasiums, telling any student and teacher who will listen about his son, whose life ended in suicide last year.

What he can show them, with the help of a photo slide show, is a bit about Alex Harrison, the quiet, brainy teen who died far too young, at age 16.

What he can tell them is how Alex endured harassment at school, often with few people knowing because his son rarely told anyone, even his parents or his closest friends.

It is a story that resonates with students, especially when news of bullying-related suicide has become more common. In one high-profile case in Massachusetts, several students have been charged in the death of a 15-year-old Irish girl who killed herself in January. And that’s just one case.

“Who in this room has ever been bullied?” Tom Harrison recently asked a group of students at Holton High, a small, rural school northwest of Grand Rapids, Mich., one of many he’s visited since Alex’s death.

About half the students raised their hands.

“Who knows someone who’s been bullied?” he then asked. Almost everyone solemnly raised a hand.

It’s the kind of response that has driven Alex Harrison’s parents to take their private anguish public, even though some in their small northern Michigan town quietly wish they’d stop talking about it.

His parents want people to know Alex’s story so they feel compelled to stand up for others like him.

“Do it for me,” Tom Harrison implores his audiences. “Do it for Alex.”

Somehow, they say, something good must come from this tragedy.

A change in culture

On its surface, Cadillac, Mich., where Alex went to high school, is the picture of serenity, a community of about 10,000 in Michigan’s northwest lower peninsula, known for its lakes, nearby forests and small-town politeness.

Those who grew up here certainly remember divisions in the schools in decades past – the “jocks” and the “burnouts,” for instance.

But in this school district and many others across the country, officials say they are seeing a troubling change in student culture. These days, they say, it’s more common for popular kids, good students and athletes to use bullying to jockey for social position. Often, this culture of meanness is amplified by text messages and social networking.

“There really is a dramatic difference in the way students treat one another,” says Paul Liabenow, the superintendent of Cadillac Area Public Schools who grew up in the area and began as an elementary school teacher in the district years ago.

He knew Alex Harrison from the time he was a primary school student and remembers him as a quirky, likable kid who was “extremely brilliant.”

At that age, his parents say Alex was already studying college-level anatomy. By age 13, he’d built his own computer, using a book to guide him.

That was about the time his parents – a pharmacist and a speech pathologist – got an inkling that their son was being teased.

He came home from junior high one day and announced, “I found out it’s not cool to be smart.”

There were other signs of conflict here and there. In high school, his parents were aware that at least one player on his tennis team was giving Alex a hard time, calling him names and forcing him off the practice court. The coach had dealt with it, and they thought that was it.

In fact, in the months before his death, many observed that Alex was coming out of his shell.

He’d just gotten his driver’s license. He had a girlfriend and a core group of friends. A longtime Boy Scout, he was also on the ski team in addition to playing tennis.

Alex was still intensely private and socially awkward, his parents say, but he’d found his own way to show them he cared.

His mother, P.K. Harrison, recalls how he’d come up behind her and, having gotten buff in more recent years from working out, would lift her off the ground.

“Is that you saying, ‘I love you, Mom?’ ” she would ask him, smiling.

“Yup,” he’d reply.

In a birthday card he gave to his dad two weeks before his death, Alex wrote in teenage scrawl, “I return the gift of love. I just do not voice it.”

Nor did he give voice to whatever was bothering him.

‘He’s still just a baby’

Harold Falan, a Michigan State Police trooper, was one of the first to arrive at the Harrisons’ home on a secluded country road after the 911 call came in the morning of Feb. 7, 2009, when Alex took his life.

As Falan got out of his car, he heard P.K. Harrison’s tortured screams a half mile away and ran as fast as he could through knee-deep snow into the woods behind their house.

“I’ve never heard a mother scream like that,” said Falan, who has since retired. “It’s one of those things you never forget.”

He found P.K. Harrison in the woods, clinging to the body of her only child. These were parents who’d already known the grief of losing a child. Before Alex was born, their infant daughter, Angela, was stillborn. Now this?

The unthinkable had happened.

Near Alex’s body was a shotgun that he and his dad were supposed to have taken skeet shooting that morning. Falan estimates that his body had been there since 2 or 3 a.m.

His mom still remembers the college sweatshirt Alex was wearing. She recalls looking at the braces he would’ve soon gotten off his teeth and thinking, “He’s still just a baby.”

There also was a notebook that Alex had taken with him into the woods that night to scribble a few notes to his parents. He told them he loved them and that he was very sorry.

“But I can’t take it anymore.”

At that point, his parents weren’t sure what “it” was. He’d showed no signs of depression, they say. Toxicology tests also found no alcohol or drugs in his system.

So Falan investigated further, talking with a number of students and a few teachers whose stories added up to a conclusion that even his own parents didn’t know: Alex had been harassed and ostracized at school, mostly by a small group of students.

Among other things, his parents say Falan’s report detailed eyewitness reports of a lunchroom incident that happened the day before their son died.

They say Alex had approached a table of popular students, and one of the girls at the table used an expletive to tell him to him to go away.

Then she added, “Don’t you know everyone hates you?”

There were reports of other incidents, his parents say, with a small group of students surrounding and taunting him in a secluded hallway with no cameras when no one else was around. Some also frequently chanted “Creeper, Creeper,” using a nickname they’d given him.

His parents say yet another student spread a rumor that Alex was looking in her windows at night, which his parents insist wasn’t true.

Still, Alex remained stoic.

“Is it the total reason he took his life? That is unknown,” Falan says. But he does believe “it is part of the ‘why.’ ”

Efforts slow to form

Though no criminal charges were filed in this case, Liabenow, the Cadillac superintendent, responded to the findings by heightening efforts to combat bullying in his school system.

Teachers and students now attend anti-bullying workshops, some of that training funded by a group that formed after Alex died.

More cameras have been added to school hallways, Liabenow says.

Staff members who monitor those hallways and the lunchroom also are on “high alert.”

Since Alex’s death, the Harrisons have received e-mails and Facebook messages from parents in the school district who’ve said their children are being harassed, too. Liabenow has vowed that each one of those claims will be investigated by his staff.

Such efforts are part of a broader attempt from Michigan’s education department – and of schools nationwide – to address bullying.

The Michigan Legislature, so far, has rejected bills that would require schools to have such policies but is reconsidering one version this session. Many states already have these kinds of laws.

Even so, some in Cadillac and elsewhere have questioned the emphasis on anti-bullying measures and on Alex’s suicide.

“We need to focus on teaching our children coping skills, not glorifying suicide or blaming bullies,” one resident wrote in a letter to the Cadillac News, the local newspaper. “Certainly schools should not accept unruly behavior, but when our kids leave school, they are subject to all kinds of abuse, even in their homes.”

Increasingly, however, school administrators say they have no choice but to address bullying.

“We can’t avoid having these conversations because the kids are talking about it anyway,” says Ann Cardon, superintendent of Holton Public Schools, where Alex’s dad spoke. She says bullying also was a top concern among parents in her district who were recently surveyed.

She has made a public promise to students who are bullied or witness it: “If you go to an adult, something will happen. That’s our commitment to you.”


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