Police have opened a criminal investigation in the suicide death of Buffalo, N.Y., 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who was bullied online with gay slurs for more than a year.
The teen’s parents, friends and even Lady Gaga, who was his idol, have expressed outrage about what they say was relentless torment on social networking websites.
The Amherst Police Department’s Special Victims Unit has said it will determine whether to charge some students with harassment, cyber-harassment or hate crimes. Police said three students in particular might have been involved. Jamey was a student at Heim Middle School.
Jamey had just started his freshman year at Williamsville North High School. (Both Amherst and Williamsville are just outside Buffalo.) But the bullying had begun during middle school, according to his parents. He had told family and friends that he had endured hateful comments in school and online, mostly related to his sexual orientation.
Jamey was found dead outside his home Sunday morning, but Amherst police would not release any details on how he killed himself.
“The special victims unit is looking into the circumstances prior to his death,” Captain Michael Camilleri said. “We are not sure if there is anything criminal or not.”
No bullying laws exist in New York State, according to Camilleri, so police would have to determine whether aggravated harassment charges fit this case. Whether suspects would be tried in juvenile court would depend on whether the alleged bully was 16 or older, he said.
Police said they had spoken with Williamsville School Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff, who has pledged the district’s cooperation.
“We’ve heard that there were some specific students, an identifiable group of students, that had specifically targeted Jamey, or had been picking on him for a period of time,” Police Chief John C. Askey told the Buffalo News.
Jamey sent out many signals on social networking sites that he was struggling with his sexuality, even though he encouraged others on the It Gets Better project websiteYouTube to fight off the bullies.
He killed himself this weekend after posting an online farewell.
Lady Gaga weighed in on the situation via twitter: “Bullying must become illegal. It is a hate crime,” she tweeted.
“I am meeting with our President. I will not stop fighting. This must end. Our generation has the power to end it. Trend it #MakeALawForJamey,” the singer posted to twitter last night.
Students had been posting hate comments with gay references on his Formspring account, a website that allows anonymous posts.
“JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND [sic] UGLY. HE MUST DIE!” one post said, according to local reports. Another read, “I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it 🙂 It would make everyone WAY more happier!”
Friends reported the bullying to guidance counselors. But everyone, including his mother, thought he had grown stronger.
Speaking at the second annual Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit were the parents of Justin Aaberg, a gay 15-year-old from Champlain, Minn., who hanged himself after being bullied. The parents, Tammy and Shawn Aaberg, said that one form of the bullying came from a student religious group whose members told Justin that he was going to hell because he was gay.
“Justin was a smiley, happy boy who loved to play his cello,” said his parents. “School systems need to do more to protect LGBT students from bullying, and not turn their back on them because of their sexual orientation.”
Rodemeyer’s suicide also sets off a somber beginning to LGBT History Month in October.
“Jamey’s suicide is a tragic reminder of the vulnerability of gay teens,” said Malcolm Lazin, founder and executive director of the Equality Forum, which focuses on LGBT civil rights and education.
“They are bullied and marginalized,” he said. “While some may say that Jamey took his life, it is unrelenting homophobia that murdered him.”
Jamey’s mother, Tracy Rodemeyer, who did not return calls from ABCNews.com, told the Buffalo News that her son had been questioning his sexuality and had expressed thoughts of suicide, but had also been encouraged by good friends and was a “happy” and “strong” teen.
Friends described him as caring and friendly, and he had been seeking help from a social worker and therapist.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 28 percent of students aged 12 to 18 reported that they were bullied in school during the 2008-2009 school year. Bullying also slows down as children get older from a high of 39 percent of all sixth graders to 20 percent of high school seniors.
The rate of victimization among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students has remained constant between 1999 and 2009, the latest date for which there are statistics, according to the National Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Parents and educators say they face significant challenges in stemming LGBT bullying, particularly at schools where there are fewer resources and support groups such as gay-straight alliances.
“We have seen some positive signs in available resources and supportive educators and society is moving in a good direction,” GLSEN spokesman Daryl Presgraves said. “But it’s still very difficult to be an LGBT youth in school.”
In May, after coming out to friends, Jamey posted a YouTube video on the new online site, It Gets Better Project, which provides testimony from adults and celebrities to reassure troubled and potentially suicidal LGBT youth that life improves as they get older.
He wrote: “Love yourself and you’re set. … I promise you, it will get better.”
Jamey’s school counselors had advised him not to go on social media sites to talk about his sexuality, according to the Buffalo News.
Some parents urge others to monitor their children’s social networking accounts. And school principals such as Anthony Orsi of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J., have urged middle-school parents to outright ban the use of social networking to prevent cyberbullying.
Social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook have made it easier for bullies to target their victims, but at the same time they are sometimes the only venue for talking about their pain.
“It’s a very challenging time for parents and for youth,” Presgraves of GLSEN said. “You have a scenario where for a lot of youth, it’s the only support to go online and seek peers to give them support and to feel connected to a community. At the same time, they expose themselves to negative cyberbullying.”
Jamey’s mother told the Buffalo News, “He touched so many hearts, so many people. I didn’t realize how many people he touched. He was the sweetest, kindest kid you’d ever know. He would give all his heart to you before he gave any to himself.”
For months, the teen, who idolized pop singer Lady Gaga, had blogged about being bullied and thoughts of suicide.
Jamey posted on his Facebook page, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. … What do I have to do so people will listen to me?
“No one in my school cares about preventing suicide, while you’re the ones calling me [gay slur] and tearing me down,” he wrote.
But on Sept. 8 he posted lyrics to a song by Hollywood Undead that included the line, “I just wanna say good bye, disappear with no one knowing. … I don’t wanna live this lie, smiling to the world unknowing.”
He posted a lyric this weekend from Lady Gaga’s song “The Queen” on his Facebook page: “Don’t forget me when I come crying to heaven’s door.”
His final message appeared on his Tumblr blog expressing a desire to see his great-grandmother, who had recently died, according to the local newspaper.
His mother said his tears and anger had recently dissipated. “Lately, he’s been blowing them off, or at least we thought he was,” she told the Buffalo News.
Teens in Crisis
When the family went camping last weekend, he seemed happy.
Suicide prevention experts say they are grateful that the media has played down the details about how he killed himself.
“The risk, especially in this case, is potentially causing other young people in their direct vicinity to take their own lives,” said Laura McGinnis, a spokeswoman for the Trevor Project, which runs a national lifeline for people younger than 24, especially LGBT and questioning youth. “The risk for contagion is too high when we share the means and method and how he did it can actually increase the likelihood that others will do it, too.”
Few statistics exist on young people who kill themselves. But overall rates among those aged 10 to 24 declined from 9.24 suicides per 100,000 in 1991 to 7.01 suicides per 100,000 in 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Suicide never has one cause, that is something really important to recognize,” McGinnis said. “But [Jamey] had the support of parents and friends and he was planning on going to a homecoming dance and dress like Lady Gaga. How do you know as a parent what signs to looks for? And sometimes, it’s really difficult to know.”
In her work with teens in crisis, McGinnis does not recommend covertly monitoring a child’s social networking accounts, but instead establishing trust and open lines of communication to gain a welcome invitation.
“Parents should pay attention to what’s going on in their kids’ lives and what is important to them,” she said. “They should maybe structure a day to ask detailed questions of the child: What is going on, what are they excited about and what are they afraid about. ‘Who is bugging you and who did you tell?’ Establish trust, listening, accepting everything they say and not judging them. Let them share their story.”
For help, go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800-273-TALK.
Also call the Trevor Project Lifeline at 866-488-7386.