5 student suicides put focus on bullying issue in Mentor
Published: Monday, September 20, 2010, 7:58 AM
MENTOR, Ohio — Little more than a year after Mentor High School adopted an internationally known program designed to prevent bullying, 16-year-old junior Sladjana Vidovic hanged herself from a bedroom window.
The pretty, outgoing teenager, who spoke with a Croatian accent and tried desperately to make friends, left a suicide note.
Written in English and her native tongue, the note described the emotional torment she endured over several months. How a boy pushed her down the stairs at school. How she was reduced to eating lunch in the bathroom.
Sladjana was one of five teenagers who attended Mentor schools and killed themselves between July 2005 and October 2008. Two lawsuits filed against the district contend bullying played a role in all five of the deaths.
The most recent lawsuit, filed last month in federal court by Dragan and Celija Vidovic, revives the debate about bullying in schools and its connection to suicide.
But do the deaths suggest bullying inside Mentor High School, one of Ohio's largest, and its feeder schools was out of control? And if a problem existed, has it been fixed? Or does simply accusing the schools of being soft on bullies obscure other factors that lead to teenage suicide?
The Mentor school district does not acknowledge that bullying has been a problem. But like many school districts across the county, it has taken steps designed to reduce harassment and intimidation in its halls and classrooms. The high school is working with the Lake County Suicide Prevention Coalition and is creating a program to help students with mental health issues.
In 2007, the district adopted the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program systemwide, having previously implemented it at Shore Middle School.
Olweus was developed in Norway in response to the suicides of three young boys decades ago. The program came to the United States in 1994. It was first rolled out in South Carolina, and is now in more than 6,000 schools across the country, said Marlene Snyder of the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University.
Olweus tries to make students more aware of bullying and to convert them from being bystanders to protectors. It also trains staff, from bus drivers to teachers, on ways to handle bullies and their victims. But it takes time to create the necessary changes, Snyder said, and there would not have been enough time for the program to effectively take hold when Sladjana Vidovic killed herself Oct. 2, 2008.
Whether it would have made a difference, nobody knows.
Bullying issue is 'touchy'
Al Mihok, president of the Mentor school board, declined to discuss the Vidovics' lawsuit. He also would not talk about a similar suit filed last year by Bill and Jan Mohat, whose 17-year-old son Eric shot himself in early 2007 after enduring months of bullying at Mentor High.
"It's just a frustrating experience," Mihok said. "We don't feel the lawsuits were justified."
Mihok said he asked his three children, all of whom graduated from Mentor High within the past six years, about bullying claims and they told him the allegations had been blown out of proportion.
Mihok did say, however, that he's troubled by students using Twitter, text messaging and other social media to harass each other after school hours, a problem Mentor police have said the schools cannot legally address.
"It's a touchy issue we're dealing with," he said.
Sladjana Vidovic often received nasty calls and messages on her cell phone at night, her sister Suzana said during a recent interview.
Bill Mohat, who believes the Olweus program is not suitable for U.S. high schools because it was originally developed for elementary and middle schools, said his biggest concern is whether Mentor administrators truly accept the need for change. He suspects they are only punishing physical violence, while letting verbal taunts slide.
"The bullies who destroyed our son didn't get so much as detention," he said.
Eric Mohat was a tall, skinny kid who played the piano and liked to wear pink shirts. His friends called him "Twiggy." Others called him "fag" and "queer." Much of the taunting occurred in a math class Eric took in the morning before going to Lakeland Community College to complete his studies.
At one point, Eric told his mother that his math teacher, Thomas Horvath, had caught the bullies and everything was OK. Six days later, a student (who Bill Mohat later said was a star soccer player for the high school) told Eric, "Why don't you go home and shoot yourself? No one would miss you."
Later that day Eric went home and shot himself with his father's registered handgun.
While the Mohats were unaware their son was being bullied until shortly before he died, the Vidovics knew all about their daughter's problems and had talked with school officials several times.
One particularly troubling incident occurred when a boy pushed Sladjana down the stairs at school.
That night, Suzana and her mother took a kitchen knife away from Sladjana, afraid of what she might be planning to do with it. The next day they called Laurelwood Hospital, where she was admitted.
A subsequent meeting between Sladjana's mother and sister and school officials, including Mentor High Principal Joseph Spiccia and Superintendent Jacqueline Hoynes, was held at the school board office, Suzana said.
"Everyone was looking at us like they were really going to take a step and do something this time," Suzana said.
But the hazing continued. At lunch, a girl grabbed Sladjana's purse and dumped the contents on the table. Sladjana's depression medication spilled out. The girl grabbed the pill bottle and began reading from it out loud.
"Of course everyone started laughing," Suzana said.
Sladjana struggled all the way until the end of her sophomore year, Suzana said. On the last day, the students were allowed to spray each other with water bottles. One girl went a little far and smacked Sladjana in the face with a bottle. Sladjana hit back and the girls began fighting.
"And all the kids were on the side of that girl," Suzana said.
'She felt like everyone just wanted her to die'
"The problems picked up again with the start of 11th grade, and the Vidovics felt it wasn't just the students who were picking on Sladjana. One day at school, Sladjana called her father because a teacher said she wasn't dressed properly, but when Dragan Vidovic arrived at school with a shirt, he found his daughter's attire to be the same as other girls.
"She felt like everyone just wanted her to die," Suzana said. "No one wanted her ther
Sladjana had begun to study from home at the time she hanged herself.
While bullying can trigger a person to take his own life, more than 90 percent of suicides stem from an underlying psychiatric problem such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse, said Madelyn Gould, a professor of clinical epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University. What's not so clear is whether bullying also leads to the underlying problems or whether they set the stage for being bullied.
"What we do know is suicide in general is never caused by one thing," Gould said. That's why schools need to watch vulnerable students that much more closely, she said.
Also, some kids can cope better with stress, such as bullying, Gould said. That might be because of strong support from family, friends and counselors, as well as a person's biological makeup.
The lawsuits filed by the Vidovics and Mohats suggest three other teen deaths stemmed in part from bullying, although the students are not identified by name and their families are not involved in any legal action against Mentor schools. In two of the other cases, people who knew the teenagers believe factors others than bullying were primarily responsible for their deaths.
Take Meredith Rezak, 16, who was often sullen, sometimes funny, but obviously troubled. She shot herself three weeks after Mohat died. Two years later, her brother did the same thing. Another brother died of a drug overdose last March that her mother Nancy Merritt suspects was suicide.
Merritt, who now lives in Colorado, doesn't think bullying played a part in Meredith's suicide.
"She was well-liked," Merritt said.
Meredith played her guitar and sang in front of 50 people just before she killed herself, Merritt said. "And that was quite an accomplishment. I was very proud of her."
Merritt said Meredith, who lived with her father, had other problems, including confusion about her sexual identity. A couple of months before Meredith shot herself, she called and said she thought she was a lesbian.
Another of the teenagers was 15-year-old Zach Tenerove, who hanged himself in the summer of 2005 before he was to begin 10th grade. Zach had withdrawn from ninth grade at Ridge Middle School the previous November, said his aunt Ingrid Tenerove. She said Zach, who lived with her and her husband on two occasions, suffered from manic depression and that while he may have experienced some bullying from time to time, his problems were more related to a traumatic upbringing.
"So I really blame it on that more than anything," said Tenerove, who suspects Zach may have asphyxiated himself accidentally.
The fifth death alluded to in the lawsuits is that of 16-year-old Jennifer Eyring, who died in 2006 after taking what her parents believe was an accidental overdose of her mother's anti-depression medicine.
Jennifer took the medication, they believe, hoping it would help her cope better with her emotions. Jennifer's mother, Janet Eyring, said her daughter had long been the victim of constant teasing as a result of a learning disability and of just being different.
Jennifer, who loved horses and has a memorial scholarship in her name at Lake Metroparks Farmpark, did not give in to peer pressure, she said.
Janet Eyring said she had planned to withdraw Jennifer from Mentor High School and educate her at home for 11th and 12th grades. While she and her husband don't blame the Mentor school system outright for their daughter's death, they believe the ongoing teasing and harassment she endured from other students contributed greatly to her demise.
The schools in general can and should do more to protect students from bullying, Janet Eyring said, adding that she would gladly offer her help to find a solution.
Solutions aren't simple
But is finding a solution that simple?
Gould, the Columbia University professor, said programs to prevent bullying should really start in preschool, with children taught to show each other respect while learning ways to negotiate conflicts and cope with stress.
She also said schools could do more to prevent suicide, but that they don't have the resources. Sometimes, schools are afraid that if they identify a student with a problem, they then become liable if something happens to that student.
Gould said she understands the pain and frustration of families who have lost a child to suicide, especially if they sought help and didn't get it. But she doesn't think suing the school is a remedy.
Suicide is so multifaceted that it becomes counterproductive to make a school the scapegoat, she said. It's better to search cooperatively for answers.
In May of this year, the Mentor school board adopted a formal policy on bullying. It states that any written, verbal or physical acts carried out more than once and meant to inflict mental or physical pain on another student are unacceptable. That includes physical violence, name calling and even excluding someone from a peer group.
But count Cindy Ludwick, 53, as a skeptic. She went through the heartache of seeing her oldest daughter, Lindsay, fail to fit in with her peers and turn to drugs. Ludwick is now watching her eighth-grader Callie suffer at the hands of more popular students.
A group of girls calls her names like "twit" and "fattie," she said. It prompted Callie to text her mom recently about needing to get out of her gym class.
Ludwick said she doesn't understand why kids feel the need to make fun of others in order to be popular and believes bullying is more severe today than when she was in high school in Salinas, Calif., in the 1970s.
"Maybe it's worse because I'm a mom and it's my kid," she said.
Ludwick said schools have too many legal limitations on what they can do to adequately solve bullying problems, which is why she's thinking about home-schooling Callie.
She has seen the anti-bullying posters in school and other information on display, but she doesn't think it does any good.
"I don't think the kids are afraid of it," she said, "I don't think they care."