Blame Game

Should Jaheem Herrera’s Suicide Send Anyone to Prison?


The suicide of 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera, who hung himself with a belt after students called him “gay” one too many times, is now a rallying point for gay and child advocacy organizations. Groups like GLSEN are finding their anti-bullying tactics in high demand as schools rush to beef up the safety of their students in the wake of two youth tragedies in a row. And in the meantime, the district attorney in DeKalb, Ga., is figuring out whether criminal charges should be filed — and against who.

Although DA Gwen Keyes Fleming says she isn’t sure any charges will be filed, doing so could see a snowball effect. Under the threat of prosecution, school districts (who may have a “mandatory reporting” requirement for teachers and staff) would have even more motivation to bolster anti-bullying efforts. Faced with the possibility of being held criminally negligent, teachers might get that extra boost of motivation to alert administrators to anti-gay (or other) bullying in school. Administrators, then, could be more prone to promote tolerance, alert the bullies’ parents and make changes in the classroom, and start a dialogue with the victim’s family.

But while Fleming sorts out criminal liability, Herrera’s family has another avenue: civil litigation. If the school failed to alert or protect Jaheem, negligence becomes the school district’s nightmare in court.

All of which leads to one thing: Letting the courts decide who, if anyone, is the responsible party here. Teachers, for not intervening? Other students and their parents, for harassment? Administrators, for not providing a safe environment?

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  • HomoWithNoJob

    If the harassment occurred on school grounds then I believe that both teachers and administrators should be held accountable. However, in terms of criminal conduct, administrators have an obligation to provide a safe campus for all students, staff and faculty; if a student’s death is a direct result of an administrator repeatedly failing to address harassment and meet the burden of providing a safe campus, then they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If I remember correctly, the family went to the school administration several times to complain and nothing was done, which is criminal negligence.

  • Average Joe

    As a former elementary educator (10 years teaching second grade), I can tell you – legal pressure and empowered parents are the ONLY forces that drive change within a public school system. I worked for a total of 15 years in the nation’s fifth largest school district in Maryland – and time and again – it was the litigious parents, and those who refused to blindly accept the “system’s” responses to their advocacy efforts who forced the system to change, and not always for the better.

    I agree it’s fairly ludicrous to hold other 11 year olds responsible for this horrendous tragedy(legally speaking). However, the teachers, administrators, and other adults within the school system NEED to be held accountable for allowing this to happen, whether they did so with ignorance or indifference is immaterial and irrelevant.

    It’s heartbreaking to hear that both these youth experienced such emotional abuse, and just as sickening to see schools and administrators retreat behind their “policies and procedures” as a means of creating deniability. The truth is – their policies and procedures regarding bullying are never uniformly followed, and rarely upheld/enforced to prevent this kind of tragedy. The more light that shines on this – and the more litigation which results – the greater the likelihood that some systemic change will take place.

  • jrd

    After working in the high school system on and off for five or so years. Administrators don’t usually care until there is legal pressure. That is the sad truth.
    If there were caring, more aggressive administrators in these cases, I can almost guarantee the outcome would have been different. I know, because I was fortunate enough to have them when I was growing up.
    Unfortunately, the administrators I have subsequently worked for have not been as responsible, so it isn’t an evolution of responsibility at work, but a need for a process to punish the ones who aren’t doing their job.

  • Phil

    Send the bullies’ parents to prison! And the bullies to counselling!

    Ignorant hateful monsters breeding ignorant hateful monsters (breeding ignorant hateful monsters!)

  • Shannon

    I think the 11 year olds should be held responsible legally as well if possible. A couple of nights in juvenile may be a big wake up call for some of them. Maybe I am irrationally angry, but I really want to see some people lose their jobs over this. I want those little bastards who tormented this angel to suffer. And their parents who taught this hate in the home to suffer.

    If little 5 year old girls with butter knives to spread jam on their bread are sent home under ridiculous and irrationally enforced “zero tolerance” policies, then there should be a zero tolernace for any racial, sexual orientation, or gender slur intentionlly made on the FIRST offense.

    Im really not a crazy bitch. I am just sick of this hate and nastiness I could just throw something. I feel like a rock has been in my chest ever since I heard about this.

  • Smokey Martini

    Since most schools have special programs for ESL students and for students with special needs, I think it would be a good idea to implement a program for bullies that supplements what they are taught through the curriculum — just to counteract the disciplinary spirit of detentions and suspensions.

    You know, to provide classes that actually teach life skills like compassion and help with self-esteem and anger management, rather than removing them from the classroom and having them learn nothing.

  • jrd

    @ Shannon:
    Absolutely, the 11 year old should be punished, but when his principal is fired because of him, and his parents are forced to pay legal damages (including the cost of a HUGE funeral), he will inevitably feel the pain somewhere, if not in his college education.
    I think children are punished for strange things often, and since this kid probably was never corrected for his misbehavior, I would say he just needs to be straightened out, I don’t know that juvenile hall is necessary or cost effective.

  • jrd

    @ Smokey:
    Brilliant idea, actually.

  • Bruno

    I don’t feel that this horrible tragedy should be met with retributions. Unless someone on the staff of the school (a teacher or the principal or a combo) purposely allowed this to happen with full knowledge, there really isn’t a hell of a lot of liability here.

    But I do think there should be major reforms regarding bullying in schools, and these 2 cases especially should continue to bear scrutiny. Perhaps these schools could be better used to educate on the matter now. They are schools after all.

  • NICK


  • JRD

    @ Bruno
    If it got so bad that he killed himself, I can assure you he cried in school. Nobody needed to ask why, they knew… if they didn’t act, they are responsible. Staff are legally required to report abuse… and nothing is ever done.

  • Bill Perdue

    At a minimum his teachers and administrators should lose their jobs and be barred from teaching for life.

    I agree with Smokey Martini, but if these little thugs fall asleep in class they should wake up in juvie.

    And to anyone else out there who finds it hard to bear up under the pressure, don’t follow this example. Living to fight another day is the best revenge.

  • Alec

    @Bill Perdue: At a minimum his teachers and administrators should lose their jobs and be barred from teaching for life.

    Will they at least get a show trial before the People’s Revolutionary Court before they’re barred from their profession for life, or do you feel that would be unnecessarily cumbersome before pronouncing guilt?

  • Bill Perdue

    @Alec: Are all lawyers simple minded apologists for bigotry like you? I guess I’ll have to spell it out for you. Teachers and administrators who are found in a hearing or trial to have abetted bigotry, violence and harassment should lose their jobs and be barred from teaching for life.

    What I do feel is unnecessary are corporate lawyers who defend the rich and their looter state and society.

    Not all lawyers are like you. Many do good work for unions or o defend in cases like the legal murders of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenberg’s and the show trials of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Dennis Banks, Leonard Peltier and Russell Means.

  • Bill Perdue

    I hate myself I am a republican self hating closet case that lives alone with my cats please pay attention to me.

  • cwm

    How many times did you hear these “justifications” (i.e. excuses) when you were a kid?

    1. Boys will be boys

    2. Why don’t you stand up for yourself?

    (Not particularly relevant if a dozen or more kids are ganging up on one kid, simultaneously. Or if you’re frail and prone to illness, to such an extent you’ve become a target even to kids who are considerably younger.)

    3. You just bring it on yourself. If you acted (looked, dressed, spoke etc.) more like the other kids, this wouldn’t happen.

    As if kids repeatedly bullied need any help in learning to blame themselves for the assaults!

    Of course teachers and other responsible adults in schools are aware of who’s being bullied. Or would be, if they paid attention…if they cared.

    I saw on a public bus a boy repeatedly attacked and taunted by nearly all the other kids: boys and girls both. Because he dressed and wore his hair somewhat differently. Speaking with the teacher–who emphasized the school’s firm commitment against bullying, and their anti-bullying policies –it took less than a minute to learn she had no idea one of her students was being bullied as we were speaking. Having experienced it myself, I surmised the situation within seconds.

    I didn’t urge her to act on the student’s behalf, and refused to name him. At a school which ignored such blatantly unacceptable behavior, any intervention on behalf of a specific student is likely to be ineffectual, and to have no effect other than to make the bullies angrier. His only hope is for the school to make it crystal clear that absolutely no bullying is tolerated, ever. I did tell the boy I knew what he was going through: and that as awful as things might seem, he can expect the situation to improve if he is patient. I wished I could have done more.

    Schools have anti-bullying policies to cover themselves in the event of a lawsuit. If a school is actually doing something about bullying, they don’t need a policy. If any teacher or administrator insists that bullying isn’t a problem at their school, you can be certain it’s a huge problem. The few schools which truly make an impact: they’ll admit it happens.

    Children who are repeatedly bullied (if they live through it) become adults who fail to live up to their potential, feel helpless, and are chronically depressed. It’s been proven in numerous studies; any mental-health professional can tell you.

    Anyone who thinks this isn’t a queer issue, they have their heads in the sand also.

    The UK have their share of problems, but are far ahead of the States in terms of awareness. Read the book Bullycide by Neil Marr & Tim Field.

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