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By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER, Associated Press Writer
LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo.
The bedroom bears the telltale signs of a typical boy on the cusp of his teen years: discarded food wrappers, video game consoles, clothes scattered on the floor.
The disarray hides tragedy inside the suburban Kansas City home. The room is a memorial to Brandon Myers, who killed himself in February 2007. He was 12.
For Kim Myers, her youngest son’s death is the result of what she calls incessant bullying that his teachers and other administrators at Voy Spears Elementary School failed to stop.
“He was teased in class on the day he died for acting depressed,” said Myers, a single parent. “He was screaming for help. If he had got the help he needed, he would still be alive.”
The details of how Brandon was harassed – and the school’s response – are incomplete. Myers has hired an attorney and said she plans to sue the Blue Springs School District for her son’s wrongful death. She and her ex-husband, Brandon’s father, don’t want to jeopardize the pending lawsuit by discussing it publicly.
A school district lawyer said officials would discuss only Brandon’s “educational experience” with The Associated Press, and then only with his parents’ permission.
The case is not without precedent. In 2005, a small-town teenager from Tonganoxie, Kan. who was bullied for years by classmates because they believed he was gay was awarded $440,000 in a settlement against a school district. The student, who said he was not gay, he was harassed with homophobic slurs from seventh grade until he quit school before graduating.
For Brandon, life was never easy. Born with a cleft palate, he endured several corrective surgeries that improved his smile but didn’t get rid of a pronounced speech impediment. His parents divorced when he was five. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in the third grade, and later depression, he took a daily chemical cocktail to combat those impulses and regularly saw a counselor outside school.
In the days and weeks leading up to his suicide, Brandon dropped several hints to classmates and teachers that his troubles may have grown life-threatening, Kim Myers said. She didn’t learn of those warning signs until it was too late.
Suicide has long been considered one of the greatest risks faced by vulnerable adolescents. But an increasing number of mental health experts warn that younger children such as Brandon are also susceptible.
Nationally, more than 1,600 children ages 10 to 14 committed suicide from 1999 through 2004, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Missouri, 34 children in that age group took their own lives from 2001 through 2005, state records show.
The direct effect of bullying on those suicides is impossible to determine.
But as in the case of Megan Meier – the 13-year-old suburban St. Louis girl who committed suicide after receiving cruel messages on a MySpace page – the social pressures that drive some children to suicide are immense, said bullying expert Hilda Quiroz.
“Schools are social settings,” said Quiroz, a former teacher who now works for the California-based National School Safety Center. “And in social settings, there are kids who wield power.”
A nationwide survey of more than 15,000 students in grades six to 10 showed that 30 percent reported experience with bullying – 11 percent as targets, 13 percent as bullies themselves and an additional 6 percent who said they had been both aggressor and victim.
Bullying victims direct their anger in two directions, Quiroz said: at themselves or toward others, including their tormentors.
The Blue Springs School District has had a bullying policy since April 2004. The policy was expanded in 2006 to add that threats in writing, including e-mails and text messages, could be considered acts of bullying.
In the weeks after Brandon’s death – including a contentious school board meeting where angry parents brought up the case – officials said they adhered to the policy.
The day after Christmas 2007 would have been Brandon’s 13th birthday. His absence made the holiday a painful one for the Myers family.
“This is the first year he’s not been around,” said his father, Randy Myers. “We’re struggling.”
Down the block from Brandon’s house, a solitary plaque marks his shortened life, a tribute to the passion that drove him to awaken in the pre-dawn darkness each morning so he could fish at the neighborhood lake before school.
“Forever Fishing,” the plaque reads. “Brandon Myers.”
Fishing was an escape for Brandon, a respite from the daily taunts at Voy Spears. He would fish at the pond with his buddy Trystyn, or with his mother’s boyfriend at nearby Lake Lotawana. Summer meant bullfrog hunting trips with his grandfather in southwest Missouri.
Inside Trystyn Wagner’s home, toy frogs of all shapes and sizes surround a hallway display of baseball cards, fishing photos and other reminders of his late best friend.
A few days before Brandon’s death, the two friends argued over a girl. They quickly patched up the dispute, but guilt from that encounter and its proximity to Brandon’s suicide hangs over Trystyn, his mother said.
“He said he wanted to be next to Brandon,” said Amy Wagner, who has since moved Trystyn and his younger sister to a private school as a result of what she says was bullying toward her son.
“It’s just been a nightmare,” she said.
During a Lee’s Summit police investigation of Brandon’s death, Trystyn told officers that Brandon drew a picture of himself hanging from a rope. The drawing was found by another student and turned in to a teacher, according to a police report.
Another classmate later shared a note from Brandon that further hinted at his risks of suicide.
I “have had enuf of this crap(p)y life,” the note reads. “I will hang myself tonight so if you have anything to say to me I suggest you tell me before 4:35 p.m. tonight.”
In the note, a copy of which was provided to the AP by Kim Myers, Brandon asked the unknown student to notify others in their class and listed the phone numbers for two classmates he wished to alert.
Kim Myers said she first learned of the warning note in May 2007, nearly three months after Brandon’s death, from Lee’s Summit police. The note was given to school officials on March 2 by a student’s parent.
The unidentified student’s mother told police and school officials that she found the note folded on a table in her home two days after Brandon’s death and brought it to school later that week.
Another, earlier comment made by Brandon for a December 2006 school assignment shows his struggles for acceptance by his classmates.
“I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done,” he wrote. “I regret standing outside the circle.”
— Brandon’s unkempt bedroom isn’t the only reminder Kim Myers carries of his brief life. She wears a frog ring on her right hand, a Mother’s Day gift to commemorate her son’s amphibious passion.
She keeps a jar of green BB gun pellets in his honor – tiny remembrances that have mysteriously turned up in the most unlikely of places, from the doctor’s office where she works to the beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where she and her mother traveled to seek peace after Brandon’s death.
“As soon as I picked it up the tide came in and washed everything away,” she recalled.
“I think it’s him talking to me … letting me know he’s around. He’s watching over me.”
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)