A community reacts to the death of 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who committed suicide after months of anti-gay taunts …and little action from his school.
Sirdeaner Walker, who has survived domestic violence, homelessness, and breast cancer, knew death could come suddenly -- but she could not have predicted it would find her 11-year-old son first.
Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover was a sixth-grader at New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, Mass. There, many of his classmates were initially strangers, as few of his friends from Alfred Glickman Elementary followed him.
On April 6, Sirdeaner Walker came home, walked up the stairs to the second floor of her home, and saw her son suspended from a support beam in the stairwell, swaying slightly in the air, an extension cord wrapped around his neck, according to police. He apologized in a suicide note, told his mother that he loved her, and left his video games to his brother.
Walker said her son had been the victim of bullying since the beginning of the school year, and that she had been calling the school since September, complaining that her son was mercilessly teased. He played football, baseball, and was a boy scout, but a group of classmates called him gay and teased him about the way he dressed. They ridiculed him for going to church with his mother and for volunteering locally.
"It's not just a gay issue," Walker said. "It's bigger. He was 11 years old, and he wasn't aware of his sexuality. These homophobic people attach derogatory terms to a child who's 11 years old, who goes to church, school, and the library, and he becomes confused. He thinks, Maybe I'm like this. Maybe I'm not. What do I do?"
His birthday, April 17, falls this year on the 13th National Day of Silence
, a day on which individuals observe vows of silence for students bullied at school.
But instead of silence, Walker wants action from the school, which she said continuously ignored her, chalking the situation up to student immaturity. She said that every day her son left for school, he walked into a "combat zone" assigned to him because of his inner-city address. But he would not point a finger at specific classmates for fear he'd be called a "snitch."
Walker said that she is angry with teachers and administrators for not taking action, and she called on the state of Massachusetts last week to probe the school, hoping she might prevent other children from feeling as her son did.
"A lot of parents don't know the avenues open to them. A lot of parents don't know where to turn," Walker told The [Springfield] Republican.
In the days following Walker-Hoover's death, parents and community members have grown increasingly critical of the school system's approach to bullies and peer abuse, further fueled by administrators refusing to comment to local media.
Hilda Clarice Graham, an expert on bullies and a school safety consultant with International Training Associates, said students often use assumed sexual orientation as a main weapon against one another. "It's the hammer that hurts the most and is the most vulnerable and hurtful thing going," she said.
Nearly half of children between the ages of 9 and 13 have been bullied, and nearly 10% of those students say it happens on a daily basis, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In a 2007 Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network
study, 86% of LGBT students said that they had experienced harassment at school during the previous year.
Days prior to Carl Walker-Hoover's suicide, he confronted a female bully who verbally accosted him. The event served as an apparent catalyst to Walker's suicide. The school's response was to have the two students sit beside one another during lunch for the next week to encourage conversation.
Graham says the school's response is not ideal because "for mediation to work, there must be equal power." She said bullies' goals are to hurt, and to depend on them to feel remorseful is not an effectual way to deal with them -- that victims are at a disadvantage when trying to make peace alone.
Graham added that schools should handle bullying on a small scale to avoid large-scale responses to tragic events.
"It's the most dramatic call to action a school can receive," she said. "Parents want a guarantee that this will never happen again."
Many residents came out in support of the Walker family in a school-sponsored vigil last Thursday night. Walker says school officials didn't invite her to the event. She said she heard from others but chose not to attend.
School superintendent Alan J. Ingram said on Thursday that cases of bullying must be addressed quickly and fairly, but added that many of the state's charter schools are autonomous and have their own policies. He said 11 of the system's schools have bullying-prevention programs, but most operate in elementary schools.
Peter J. Daboul, the newly elected chairman of the school's board of directors, said the board will have an emergency meeting to review the circumstances surrounding Walker-Hoover's suicide. He said the school follows the Springfield Public School System's protocols for dealing with bullies.
For now, Walker says she worries about her son's best friend, a heavy girl with whom Walker-Hoover would have lunch. Walker said the girl is still teased for her weight. "By whatever means necessary, I'm going to get the message across that the taunting has to end in the schools," she said.
As someone who was suicidal in grade school and junior high, and someone who was ostracized by classmates, this story really hit home for me. The sad thing is, there's really not much that teachers and administrators can do. They can stand up for bullied children, but they can't be everywhere at once. As long as kids are learning hate at home, they're going to bring it to school with them. And it seems like even this child's suicide hasn't made these kids feel remorse. What is it going to take?