Polk County Schools investigate bullying claim in suicide of 18-year-old student

Directional sign for Copper Basin High School in Copperhill, Tenn. (Facebook Photo)

As a Polk County, Tenn., family reels with grief, county school officials are investigating circumstances surrounding the self-inflicted death last week of an 18-year-old Copper Basin High School student.

Patrick Griffin was found dead early last Thursday morning from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Polk County Director of Schools Dr. James Jones said Tuesday. The incident shocked the community and left behind many questions.

Jones said school officials have been investigating rumors that Griffin was bullied in the time leading up to taking his own life, but officials so far have not been able to substantiate those claims.

"We have not been able to substantiate that happening with the student body," he said. "If it happened, we want to know factually, and we will punish people accordingly.

photo Directional sign for Copper Basin High School in Copperhill, Tenn. (Facebook Photo)

"We are still investigating," Jones said.

According to his obituary, Griffin was born in Blairsville, Ga., and had been a member of the student council, a former member of the school band, a tech director for the Copper Basin TV News, and loved animals.

Griffin was "a sweet, kind and loving person," the obituary read. He was buried on Sunday.

Bullying happens at schools in Polk County, Jones admitted, but staff have undergone training to create an atmosphere in which bullying victims feel they can talk to school officials.

"We're probably not bully-free, but I honestly don't know a school or school system that is bully-free," Jones said. "We take it very seriously, and we punish people when we find out they have been bullies."

Those situations are investigated and are handled "in what we feel like is an appropriate manner," Jones said.

In the past, Polk County officials have been able to substantiate cases of bullying.

Griffin and his family did not notify school officials of any bullying problems, Jones said. Griffin's mother had heard some rumors of her son being bullied, and the 18-year-old had talked with his mother about a person "calling him names," he said.

"We want to know if that happened and we want to know factually," Jones said. "It's a complete tragedy."

When the school system completes its investigation, the findings will be turned over to the Polk County Sheriff's Office, Jones said. There is no time line on the investigation "because we want to be thorough and sure of what we're doing," he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.