BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) - Weeks after the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer in western New York, school officials, police and lawmakers are grappling with ways to prevent the kind of schoolyard bullying being blamed for his death.
The openly gay teen’s parents Tim and Tracy Rodemeyer are calling for changes in how New York schools handle the kind of chronic harassment that drove their son to kill himself outside their suburban Buffalo home on September 19.
“It’s the only thing that’s keeping us going, to try and get the word out,” Tracy Rodemeyer told Reuters.
Already the move has resulted in proposed state legislation aimed at stopping online taunts, known as cyber-bullying.
It comes in the wake of neighboring New Jersey enacting the nation’s toughest anti-bullying law after the suicide last year of a gay Rutgers University student who was bullied.
At the start of this school year, New Jersey officials worried tight budgets might make it difficult to uphold the law, which requires a uniform response to each and every incidence of bullying, including corrective action plans and time frames for intervention.
In Buffalo, meanwhile, a painful reminder that little has changed came last week when a student at the school Rodemeyer attended was suspended for continued taunting of the teen even after his death.
This time the target was his 16-year-old sister at a school dance just hours after she attended a wake for her younger brother on September 22.
“It sickens me,” their father said of reports that some students chanted “better off dead” when dance organizers played a song in Rodemeyer’s honor by his favorite singer, Lady Gaga, who has memorialized him in her anti-bullying comments.
“Your mind just spins at 100 miles per hour. How can someone do that? I don’t understand how someone could be so cruel,” Tracy Rodemeyer said.
“Everybody has a story about bullying but never, never have I ever seen it where somebody would be happy that someone is dead from their actions.”
Superintendent Scott Martzloff posted a message on the district’s web site condemning the dance incident and saying a student believed to be responsible was suspended.
Police continue to investigate Rodemeyer’s death to determine if criminal charges should be brought against some of the teens accused of harassing him, officials said.
The high school freshman had talked to his mother about being gay for the first time about a year ago. In May, he contributed an online video to an international campaign called “It Gets Better,” designed to help young gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people confirm their identity and survive the pitfalls of being different.
She said the teasing that followed Rodemeyer through grade school and into high school included taunts of “fag” and “girly girl” hurled at the boy who kept mostly female friends.
While his online message in May was one of hope, his mother said it is clear now that he put up a strong front to hide the deep hurt within.
School guidance counselors and social workers met with Rodemeyer over the years but none seemed to strive to help him, his father said. One counselor’s advice was simply to stop spending time with girls, he said.
One big problem is that harassment may seem endless for some teens, deepening their despair, said Dr. Stuart Green, of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness, who helped draft the New Jersey anti-bullying legislation.
“In 12 years of taking phone calls from parents I’ve never once gotten a call where a parent was upset about something that happened yesterday. It’s months and years,” he said.
The proposed legislation in New York to make it easier to prosecute online bullying is aimed at creating a “chilling effect” to discourage the harassment, said Rich Azzopardi, spokesman for state Senator Jeffrey Klein, author of the bill.
“Years ago, drunken driving wasn’t viewed as a big deal, even though it has the potential to kill people. What we’re doing with bullying is changing people’s perception of it,” Azzopardi said.
For the Rodemeyers, that shift can’t come soon enough.
“We’re really supposed to be learning from our mistakes and this is the next biggest one,” Tracy Rodemeyer said.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Ellen Wulfhorst