by Conswella C. Bennett
The attorney for the family of Jaheem Herrera announced during a “Stand for Children Rally” Saturday, May 9, at Beulah Baptist Church in Decatur that they are moving forward with a wrongful death lawsuit against the DeKalb County School Board.
The county has 30 days to respond to the suit that was faxed and delivered by certified mail on Saturday, the eve of Mother’s Day. Gerald Griggs, the family’s attorney, made the announcement to thunderous applause during the rally held in memory of Jaheem. The 11-year-old hanged himself on April 16, after reportedly enduring constant bullying and teasing from students at Dunaire Elementary School in Stone Mountain.
Griggs, like most in attendance, wore a white T-shirt with a black and white photograph of a highly circulated picture of Jaheem with his half smile, but this time his picture was surrounded by angel wings. Griggs told the crowd the family has decided to move forward with the lawsuit to make the DeKalb County School Board accountable. According to Griggs, he had previously attempted to have open communication with the school board, but “it wasn’t fruitful.”
“I promise you as an attorney I will do my very best to hold those accountable,” Griggs added. “We have to reach out to our children and let them know that they are protected.”
With Masika Bermudez and Norman Keene, Jaheem’s parents, seated in the front row, Griggs told the crowd of about 100 they were no longer going to focus on his death, but on his life.
Since her only son’s death, Bermudez has been on a mission to tell her story in the hopes that no other child will succumb to the pressures of bullying. Bermudez appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show last week in an episode with bullying asits theme. On the segment, Bermudez recounted her tragedy just three days after burying her son in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Bermudez was interviewed along with Sirdeaner Walker, whose 11-year-old son also hanged himself after reportedly being bullied at a Massachusetts middle school.
Griggs said thos eattending the rally were sending a loud message that bullying needs to end. “No more in DeKalb County. No more in metro Atlanta. We’re going to say no more in Georgia…This is a momentous occasion, we’re going to fight and stand for our children.”
Griggs urged the group of supporters to apply pressure on the school board to terminate the Dunaire Elementary School administrative staff. Griggs adamantly encouraged the immediate termination of the school’s principal, Dr. Carolyn Thompson, and the assistant principal. The school’s Web site lists two assistant principals, Rose M. Lockett and Charles Wood. According to Griggs, the administration was aware of the incidents against Jaheem and did nothing.
Bermudez has said that she was at the school on at least seven occasions talking to the school’s administrators and counselors about the bullying against her son. Recently, some of Jaheem’s former teachers have come forward and said that they saw no signs of bullying against him, however Griggs said these remarks are a slap in Bermudez’s face. “I got a problem when you call children liars, I got a problem when you call parents who go up to the school multiple times a liar,” Griggs said. “So, I want you to tell it to a jury.”
Bermudez, who gave way to tears throughout the rally, gained her composure enough to speak to the group. With Keene and her youngest child, 5-year-old Ny’Itsa, by her side, she said: “What my son did – to die like that was bad. But, it has opened doors to a lot of kids.”
As she has done at other events, Bermudez urged the children to not be afraid to talk to their parents. She recalled how her son used to tell her everything and then he stopped.
“It’s like he’s a sacrifice for you all. Thank you. We’re going to fight for Jaheem,” Bermudez said.
According to Griggs, the lawsuit is step one of an action plan. The plan was passed out to those in attendance and they were asked to become part of a grassroots effort. The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church and a well-known community activist, encouraged their involvement. “Any society that does not make children a number one priority is a dying society. Any culture that does not make children a number one priority is a dying culture and any community that does not make children a number one priority is a dying community,” McDonald said.
Sending out a call for action, McDonald added, “Jaheem is symbolic in a sense. God is using him to shake all of us up. He is symbolic of every child who’s been labeled, used or abused.” Derrick Boazman, a WAOK radio personality who hosted the rally fought back tears, encouraged the youth in attendance to come to the front of the room along with their parents. The Rev. John Battle, a former NBA player and pastor of New Shield of Faith Christian Ministries, prayed over the group and shared that he was bullied and teased while a youth in school.
Counselors were also in attendance to talk and to help the youth and their parents who needed assistance. For those parents who had children that were bullies or single parents with sons who wanted some male-role model involvement, Boazman encouraged them to fill out information cards and promised that they would be contacted and would receive help.
“There are still some real men,” Boazman said. “Sometimes you have to put together a God squad. Sometimes young men need to feel the presence of a man.” Turning to Bermudez, Boazman said God was working with Jaheem because she has opened herself up and been vulnerable to tell people what happened to her son. “It’s not your fault Masika,” he said. “Don’t blame yourself.”
Like Boazman, some in attendance didn’t know Jaheem or his family personally but they were compelled to come out and show their support. Gwendolyn Adams of McDonough, who attended with her adult daughter Rene Demery, a regional coordinator of Parent to Parent of Georgia, said they were moved to attend because they want to help get the word out.
“This little boy couldn’t even concentrate on learning,” Adams added. “It just breaks my heart.” Jerrie Williams of Stone Mountain, a mother of an eighth grader who has Asperger’s Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder) and a sixth grader who has autism, said both attend Stone Mountain Middle School and both have been bullied.
Williams encouraged her daughter to introduce herself to Bermudez and to thank her for speaking out. A smiling Bermudez embraced the girl. Williams looking on said she is happy that there will be a lawsuit. “It’s time for DeKalb County to learn,” Williams said. “The administrators like to hide behind closed doors.”
Williams also spoke with Griggs about the possibility of pursuing a lawsuit on behalf of the bullying against her children. The only legislator present at the rally, Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said he supported an anti-bullying bill during an earlier legislative session. It was unanimously passed by the Senate and also passed the House Committee on Education, he said. The bill is still alive and is in House and will be taken up on the second Monday in January, he added.
“We have to start working now,” Fort said. One DeKalb School Board member attended the rally. Sarah Copelin-Wood, who represents District 3, said she was there because the location is in her district and Beulah Baptist is her church.
“I am a concerned parent,” Copelin-Wood said. “I chose to come represent Sarah. I didn’t come to see or hear what anybody was saying. My heart is full.” Copelin-Wood suggested that parents attend school board meetings and sign up to speak and voice their concerns when all nine members are present. “A lot of folks call down to the county administration building located on North Decatur Road, but that’s not where our offices are. If you don’t call us at home, you’re not talking to us.
“I feel so sorry for that mother,” Copelin-Wood added. “I just don’t know what to do. I care, I wasn’t going to not come.”