Bullied to death? Family says they complained repeatedly to school administrators, but nothing changed

Bullied to death? Family says they complained repeatedly to school administrators, but nothing changed

May 24th, 2015 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Nearly 100 people release black and blue colored balloons Thursday in remembrance of two deceased Copper Basin students that were victims of bullying at the Copper Basin High/Middle School in Polk County.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Copper Basin Students Remembered at Balloon Release

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WHAT IS BULLYING?

* The Tennessee State Code defines bullying as an act that substantially interferes with a student's educational benefits, opportunities or performance and takes place on the school grounds, at any school-sponsored activity or on a school bus.
* The Tennessee Department of Education's educators guide says bullying can be verbal, social and physical, and "the imbalance of power involves the use of physical strength, or popularity, to access embarrassing information to control or harm others."

WHO ARE THE VICTIMS?

* One in three students admits being bullied during the school year, and only 36 percent of those students report it to authorities.
* Bullied students are 2.4 times more likely to report suicidal thoughts and 3.3 times more likely to report a suicide attempt than unbullied classmates.
Source: National Bullying Prevention Center

COPPERHILL, Tenn. — The eighth grader's principal was asked to leave her visitation service. So were the county's school superintendent and several classmates.

The family said these people did not belong. They didn't want to hear their condolences.

Jazmine Kellie Harris was days away from turning 14 when she took her own life last week. Family members and close friends say persistent bullying at school brought Jazmine to the breaking point, causing her to commit suicide. Her mother, Angel Harris, and several other people say they complained repeatedly to school administrators, but nothing changed.

"The ones who could have done something [about the bullying] didn't," said Angel Harris. " And now I'm left here without my daughter, who we all loved so much."

Jazmine's death comes 71 days after another student at Copper Basin High School, Patrick Griffin, also decided to kill himself. Patrick, 18, was just months away from his graduation, which would have taken place Friday night. He also was continually bullied, according to his mother and friends.

Patrick's mother, Doresa Griffin, said the school didn't take her or Angel Harris' complaints seriously. She believes the school failed to protect her son, and that Jazmine's life could have been spared if administrators had taken action.

Parents and students say something has to change. They don't want one more child to die in despair.

Copperhill, population about 350, is on the southern tip of Polk County, almost touching the North Carolina border. A handful of restaurants and some shops fill the few downtown blocks, and old wooden signs point to a variety of churches.

Copper Basin High School has 350 students, according to the Tennessee Schools Report Card. The school serves students from several neighboring towns, and bullying has been a problem for years, alumni and parents say.

***

Polk County Schools Superintendent Dr. James Jones acknowledges that there's some bullying at the school, but he doesn't think it's worse than at other schools.

He said any report of bullying made to the school administration is taken seriously and investigated.

"The results may not be what people think they should be," he said. "But we are not sweeping [bullying] under the rug, that I know of. I'm just saying that if we think and know that bullying is going on, we try to help the situation."

Jones said much the same after Griffin used a gun to end his own life, and he told Doresa Griffin allegations of bullying could not be substantiated.

Jones said last week that Jazmine and her mother also had reported the bullying and "were trying to deal with it."

***

Kaylah Redden and Emily Wright both attend Copper Basin and were in the 20-or-so member marching band with Jazmine.

They call themselves her best friends. Kaylah proudly refers to their small, tight group of friends as "the freaks." They dress differently, typically in darker clothes, and many like to dye their hair bright colors. They are into music that other kids don't know, and pride themselves on not looking like the jocks or the stick-skinny girls who wear expensive clothes.

"We just express ourselves differently," Kaylah said. "Because of this, people think we are weird and make fun of us."

Kaylah and Emily said Jazmine got made fun of more than they did — she was quieter and didn't fight back.

"She never was going to cause trouble or anything," Emily said. "She didn't even always tell me when she was getting bullied 'cause she knew I would get mad and fight."

The girls recounted names hurled at Jazmine in the halls: "whore," "fat-a—," "worthless." They said at least 25 teens were involved in the torment.

One boy intentionally kicked Jazmine in the knee with his steel-toed boots at field day, the girls said. Angel Harris remembers the doctor telling her that Jazmine was bruised in the alleged incident.

Wiping tears away with one hand, Mary Davis, left, and her daughter Marissa Hopkins talk about the abuse Hopkins felt from her time at Copper Basin High/Middle School.

Wiping tears away with one hand, Mary Davis,...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Kaylah, Emily and Jazmine tried time and again to report bullying to Principal David Turner, they said. But they say the response was that they were exaggerating, or making things up to get the boy in trouble.

Angel Harris said she complained, too, but was told that without witnesses to the bullying, nothing could be done.

When she talked to Turner about Jazmine being kicked, he said he would handle the situation by telling the boy to stay away from her daughter at school, she said.

Harris said that wouldn't solve the problem, because if teachers and other students didn't see — or admit they saw — the bullying, the school couldn't guarantee the boy was not still harassing her daughter.

She said she also complained to Jones, who never followed up with her. She said parents of some teens who bullied Jazmine said the school never contacted them about complaints against their children.

"I think the school should have handled it with me and my daughter in the room, and the bully and his parents in the room," Harris said. "None of this, 'You just talk to my daughter and then the bully and if their stories don't match up you say the investigation is over.'"

She said the school's handling of the situation made things worse for Jazmine, as the bullying increased because she told administrators.

Turner turned down multiple requests for comment. School board attorney Scott Bennett said that, in this sensitive situation, educators have to maintain a level of confidentiality.

School board Chairman L.W. Smith, who lives in Copperhill, said he does not think the bullying problem is that bad at Copper Basin High.

"Both teachers and administrators have done their due diligence, and if anything else can be done they will implement it," he said.

Jones said the school plans to conduct more staff training on preventing bullying. He couldn't speculate whether holding such training earlier could have averted two children's deaths.

***

Dr. David Dupper, a sociology professor at the University of Tennessee and author of several books about bullying in schools, said it is hard to draw a causal relationship between bullying and suicide. He said kids who commit suicide often have other serious problems, and that bullying sometimes provides the final push toward killing themselves.

He said schools need to care about students' mental health and have programs to help troubled teens.

"There is a lot of stigma associated with asking for help, or recognizing that children need help," Dupper said. "Adults are very unaware of a child's world, and how heavy life can be for children at that age."

He said schools must take a top-down approach to combat bullying, including the certainty of discipline.

"It must start with the principal and school board figuring out the best practice, which is to say [bullying] will not be tolerated, and then everyone needs to buy into that," Dupper said.

Bullied students also must be more willing to speak up about the problem, he said.

He likened bullying to child abuse, saying it normally relies on a power differential, and is different than peer conflict.

"Bullying is intentionally harming another person physically or emotionally," Dupper said. "It's ongoing, kids are targeted and there is an intent to harm. Bullies choose to abuse classmates who will not fight back."

***

People here in Copperhill say everyone knows everyone, and the whole community was saddened by Jazmine's and Patrick's deaths. But residents shopping at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store offered varying opinions on how much bullying they believe occurs at the high school.

Angel Harris, right, receives a reassuring embrace from her friend Wynoka Allen on Thursday before the balloon release in Copperhill, Tenn. Nearly 100 people released black and blue colored balloons Thursday to remember two, now deceased Copper Basin students that were victims of bullying at the Copper Basin High/Middle School in Polk County.

Angel Harris, right, receives a reassuring embrace from...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Residents repeatedly asked for their names to be withheld to avoid additional unrest in the town.

"I just don't think the kids at school understood Jazmine," one woman said. "In a small town like this, we don't know always how to interact with people that are this different from us."

She said that Jazmine may not have been bullied, and that her classmates simply did not know how to interact with her or her friends' goth style.

"Can you blame kids for questioning something they don't understand?" she asked. "For people like us those kids are just different, and really weird. Some people associate their style with witchcraft around here."

Another woman said her son is bullied occasionally at the high school.

"I know bullying is a problem," she said. "But the administration is doing everything it can. Kids are just kids. You don't see everything."

A couple of older men standing outside the store said maybe kids just need to develop tougher skin.

***

On Thursday night about 100 people gathered at a gas station near the high school to release balloons in memory of Jazmine and Patrick.

Marissa Hopkins stood close to her mom, holding a blue balloon for Patrick and a black one for Jazmine.

Hopkins used to attend Copper Basin, but said she left at the end of her sophomore year because the bullying was so bad. She transferred to Tellico Plains High School, where she graduated in May 2014.

She said the decision to switch schools saved her life, because her peers at that school accepted and respected her.

"Before switching schools I tried to kill myself in the girl's bathroom," Hopkins said. "I was bullied since third grade and it got so bad I started to believe what the kids were saying to me — it would be better if I was not alive."

Hopkins said when she attended Copper Basin her locker was moved 13 times, because kids would put their dirty lunch trays inside it and write the words "fat whore" on the outside with ketchup. "It got to the point where I just carried my books so I didn't have to see it," Hopkins said.

She remembers the day she walked into class and everyone started "mooing" at her like she was a cow. She also remembers how the teacher just smiled, doing nothing.

Mary Davis, Hopkins' mom, said she asked the school's former principal several times for help.

Nothing ever happened, Davis said, so she decided to move her daughter.

"If I hadn't moved her, I don't think she would be here today," Davis said through tears.

Hopkins said Patrick was one of her best friends, and that she wishes his life could have been saved. She fears other kids who have had similar experiences also will find escape in suicide.

Hopkins said she is thankful to be alive, but haunted by her memories of Copper Basin High School.

She remembers students telling her and Patrick that the world would be better if they just killed themselves, and how those comments seeped into their heads and they started to believe them.

Staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

 


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