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Missouri death highlights dangers of bullying

Brandon Myers was only 12 when he killed himself. Experts say younger children are increasingly at risk.

January 27, 2008|Alan Scher Zagier | Associated Press

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 12-year-old Brandon Myers, who killed himself in February 2007.

For Kim Myers, Brandon's death is the result of what she calls incessant bullying that her son's teachers and other administrators at Voy Spears Jr. 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."

Teen suicide has long been considered one of the greatest risks faced by vulnerable adolescents. But an increasing number of mental health experts are warning that younger children such as Brandon are also susceptible.

A nationwide survey of more than 15,000 students in grades six to 10 showed that 30% reported experience with bullying -- 11% as targets, 13% as bullies themselves and an additional 6% who said they had been both aggressor and victim. The survey was published in 2001.

Nationally, more than 3,000 children ages 10 through 14 committed suicide from 1995 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.

Many of the details of how Brandon was harassed -- and the school's response -- are incomplete. Myers has hired an attorney and said she planned a wrongful-death suit against the Blue Springs School District. She and her ex-husband, Brandon's father, don't want to jeopardize the pending lawsuit by discussing it publicly.

A lawyer for the school district 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 teenager from Tonganoxie, Kan., who was bullied for years by classmates who believed he was gay, was awarded $440,000 in a settlement against his school district. The young man, who says he is not gay, was harassed with homophobic slurs from seventh grade until he quit school his junior year.

The direct link between bullying and those self-inflicted deaths is impossible to determine. But as in the case of Megan Meier -- a 13-year-old suburban St. Louis girl who committed suicide after receiving cruel messages on her 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 Westlake Village, Calif.-based National School Safety Center. "And in social settings, there are kids who wield power."

Bullying victims direct their anger in two directions, Quiroz said: at themselves or toward others, including their tormentors.

"Children sometimes turn inward and hurt themselves, or they turn outward and bring weapons to school," she said.

For Brandon, life didn't come easy. Born with a cleft palate, he endured several corrective surgeries that improved his smile but didn't get rid of a speech impediment.

His parents divorced when he was 5. Diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in the third grade, and later with depression, he took a daily chemical cocktail to combat those impulses and he 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 might have grown life-threatening, Kim Myers said. She didn't learn of those warning signs until it was too late.

The day after Christmas would have been Brandon's 13th birthday. His absence made the holiday a painful one for his older brother and sister and his parents too.

"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 predawn 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. He would go fishing with his buddy Trystyn, or with his mother's boyfriend at nearby Lake Lotawana. Summertime 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.

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