A crowd of about 60 gathered Tuesday night at the DeKalb home of Jaheem Herrera to remember the fifth-grader who committed suicide last week. The 11-year-old boy hanged himself at his home after — according to his family — relentless bullying at Dunaire Elementary School. Masika Bermudez, the boy’s mother, spoke briefly at the vigil that started about 7 p.m. After a short prayer, Bermudez told friends and parents to make sure their children understand that whatever problems they have “don’t be afraid to talk to your mother.”
As Bermudez spoke, she clung to two daughters — Ny’irah, 7 and Yerralis, 10. Yerralis discovered her brother’s body last Thursday after school. “His sister was screaming, ‘Get him down, get him down,’” said Norman Keene, Jaheem’s stepfather. When Keene got to the room, he saw Yerralis holding her brother, trying to remove the pressure of the noose her brother had fashioned with a fabric belt. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Jennifer Errion, assistant director of student support services, prevention-intervention for DeKalb schools. DeKalb County schools have programs in place to combat the types of bullying and violence that may have led to Jaheem’s death, but a Errion acknowledged the prevention program is “not a vaccine.” Two years ago, DeKalb public schools adopted an anti-bullying program called “No Place for Hate,” she said. The program, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, helps train faculty and students on accepting differences, promoting diversity and inclusion.
“We’ve created the idea that bullying is a rite of passage, and I don’t think it is,” said Errion. At the vigil, the mother of Jaheem’s best friend relayed a story from Jaheem’s last day. “Jaheem asked if anyone would miss him if he wasn’t here,” said Alice Brown, mother of Jaheem’s 10-year-old classmate A.J. “[A.J.] told him ‘He was his friend and he would miss him.’ “ Keene said the family knew the boy was a target of bullies, but until his death they didn’t understand the scope. “They called him gay and a snitch,” his stepfather said. “All the time they’d call him this.” Earlier this month the suicide of a Massachusetts boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover — who suffered taunts that he was gay — attracted national attention. He was also 11. His mother found him hanging from an extension cord in the family’s home. Bermudez also said her son was being bullied at school. She said she had complained to the school.
School officials won’t discuss allegations that bullying may have contributed to the boy’s suicide. Davis said Tuesday morning that officials are legally unable to comment on student-related records, such as whether the school had received complaints that Jaheem was being bullied.The family has hired an attorney.