MSNBC is reporting that 12-year-old Joel Morales of New York City killed himself after being badly bullied in two different New York City Schools. The boy’s mother and other relatives allege that the boy was repeatedly bullied because he was intelligent, because of his stature and because his father was dead. Morales had been seeing a therapist but had been reluctant to discuss some of the problems he was encountering.
It is important to consider the broader situation when media accounts report that students have committed suicide due to bullying. There are often other factors at play. I have assisted a school district client after a student in the district committed suicide at home and the case was intensely and inaccurately covered in the national media. The inaccurate coverage caused immense emotional harm to the student’s mother as well as to school officials. In addition, a number of mental health professionals have expressed concern that sensationalist media coverage of student suicides combined with the manner in which student suicide is treated in the movie “Bully” could contribute to the decisions of students who are bullied to commit suicide.
At the same time, there does appear to be a link between severe bullying and the decisions of some students to commit suicide. This is another reason schools and school districts should:
- Evaluate the level of bullying in schools using assessment based approaches
- Carefully consider how victims of school violence are protected by school disciplinary strategies (for example, the New York City School System has been under intensive pressure not to arrest students who attack other students and a number of school districts have dramatically reduced the use of court intervention for misdemeanor attacks on students by other students leaving them virtually defenseless).
- Implementing an evidence-based approach to bullying prevention such as the free Stop Bullying Now Campaign provided to any school in the nation at no cost by the federal government. Top bullying prevention experts tend to agree that evidence based approaches can dramatically reduce bullying and the impact it has on students.
- Focus on improving student supervision. This is one of the least expensive and most effective ways to reduce problematic behaviors among students as long as effective disciplinary strategies are in place.
- Focus on efforts to improve the connection and communications between students and staff.
- Suicide prevention screenings for students and training for school staff on how to detect students who may be at risk for suicide should be considered due to the significant levels suicide among school-aged students.
Bullying and student suicide are both significant issues for schools. Research-proven bullying and suicide prevention approaches can not only help make students safer, they can help improve school climate and culture.