SPARKS, Nev. -- Two students from separate schools committed suicide within days of each other this month -- which is National Bullying Prevention Month -- and both boys apparently had been bullied. Now, parents are asking questions not just about bullying but also about anti-bullying videos, which both schools aired shortly before the incidents.
Brad Lewis' son Jordan, 15, a sophomore at Carterville High School in Illinois, killed himself Oct. 17 by shooting himself in the chest.
Jordan left behind an affectionate, apologetic note that, according to Lewis, concluded with the line, “Bullying has caused me to do this. Those of you know who you are.”
Lewis criticized investigators for not pursuing the bullies more aggressively, but also turned some of his questions toward his son's school, which showed an anti-bullying video to students the day before Jordan killed himself.
"All I know is they were discussing the bullying, and showing kids bullying, and at the end of the show they showed pictures of kids that took their lives," Lewis said. "When a child or a person is at the end of their rope, and they don’t think there’s anywhere to go, and they don’t think anyone's doing anything about it, and they see something on video, and they relate."
Lewis added, "You’re dealing with kids. Kids don’t look at the long-term situation -- they look at the short term, they look at the pain they feel now, how can they end that pain.”
[Updated, Oct. 28, 12:34 p.m.: Carterville Unified School District Supt. Bob Prusator told the Los Angeles Times he didn’t know exactly which program had been shown, but added that it was apparently one shown at many schools across the U.S. He said the schools’ ant-ibullying efforts would continue to be evaluated.
“It’s part of the ongoing challenges of public school systems,” Prusator said. “I think every school district in America would agree, the issue of how we keep kids safe in all aspects ... there’s a lot of different levels. We feel a lot of pressure to keep our kids safe, and so we’re always evaluating things, but we also need feedback from people.... Particularly on social media stuff, we just don’t know what kids are experiencing.”
Prusator said school officials had never received reports of Jordan being bullied at school, and added that the incident was still under investigation by local law enforcement.]
Then last week in Sparks, Nev., 12-year-old Jose Reyes brought a gun to school, shot two classmates and killed a teacher before killing himself.
Those who knew Jose said sometimes he would cry and say people were calling him names. One witness to the shootings recalled Jose saying, "You guys ruined my life, so I'm going to ruin yours."
On Oct. 11, the documentary "Bully" reportedly had been shown to all Sparks Middle School students during their sixth-period class. The film, according to students, depicted two stories in which bullying drove one student to commit suicide by hanging and another to bring a gun on a school bus.
Some students and parents say the parallels are disturbing.
“I don’t understand why that would be shown in the schools,” said Veronica Rudd, whose daughters are in seventh and eighth grade at Sparks Middle School.
“They are trying to be very proactive [about bullying], but I don’t know if it’s coming across to the kids that way,” Rudd said. ”Because at this age, children can be influenced by many things.”
Washoe County School District officials did not respond to requests for comment about the video. Lt. Erick Thomas of the Sparks Police Department said the film is part of the investigation into the Oct. 21 shootings.
"Detectives are reviewing the video to see if it has any bearing on the investigation," Thomas said.
Research is mixed on the benefits of in-school bullying-prevention programs.
One 2010 scholarly review of existing research estimated that school prevention programs reduced bullying by more than 20%.
A different study released by University of Texas-Arlington researchers came to the opposite conclusion, noting that their data showed "students attending schools with bullying prevention programs were more likely to have experienced peer victimization, compared to those attending schools without bullying prevention programs."
The Texas-Arlington study cautioned that the programs may not be causing increased bullying and said more research was necessary to draw conclusions.
The issue presents a significant policy problem for educators.
Bullying victims are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teenagers. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control statistics from 2000 to 2010, between 300 and 450 kids ages 12 to 15 killed themselves every year -- about one a day.
Teenage suicide rates rise every year, even though research suggests bullying decreases as students get older.
Brad Lewis said parents from around the country contacted him after his son's suicide. They were concerned not just about bullying, he said, but also about bullying videos.
Lewis wondered if parents should be notified before schools show such videos -- or even if parents should see the films first. "Sometimes it might be graphic," he said, "but it can affect people, especially kids that are in a dark place."
Mason reported from Sparks, Nev.; Pearce from Los Angeles.