It happened again, to yet another 9-year-old. McKenzie Adams—a Linden, Alabama fourth-grader who died by suicide following months of racist bullying—was laid to rest on Saturday.
Bidding farewell to a bright young girl is an unimaginable pain that McKenzie’s family and community were forced to grapple with. But it’s especially heartbreaking to realize the circumstances of her death.
McKenzie’s family complained to school officials and the state board of education with the hope that it would alleviate the pain she experienced.
Sadly, McKenzie’s story isn’t an anomaly. We’re witnessing our youngest children choosing death as an option to relieve themselves of agonizing torment at school. Just a month before, another 9-year-old student in Alabama, Maddie Whitsett, died by suicide after being bullied at school that day. Her stepfather told reporters that Maddie, who had ADHD, had told them she’d been called “dumb” and “stupid” by classmates. In August, Jamel Myles, also 9, died by suicide after enduring anti-gay bullying at his school.
It’s stories like these that remind us why we monitor and report on hate incidents at schools across the nation. We examine them and reach out to educators and administrators in the hopes that they can interrupt what might lead to this worst-case scenario—a parent having to bury their child.
What may seem like childish taunts, juvenile mischief or crude jokes—while not always intended to do harm—are, in fact, insidious. The truth is that hate can kill.
And while all children are at risk of suicide, some groups suffer disproportionately. A study released in July found that suicide rates for black children between the ages of 5 and 12 were roughly twice that of white children the same age. LGBTQ youth are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight classmates, according to the most current analysis, and transgender young people attempt suicide at six times the rate of their cisgender peers.
Hate incidents—verbal, written or physical offenses committed against a person or group of people based on their perceived identity—are hugely underreported at schools, as we’re learning from our 2018 Hate at School survey’s preliminary results.
These incidents, motivated by bias or stereotypes, too often get brushed off as “kids being kids.” But we know that racism, for example, has adverse effects on the body, such as increases in the hormone cortisol and higher blood pressure, which may ultimately lead to heart or brain issues.
Research on the implications of an environment that doesn’t value the inclusion of all people from diverse backgrounds and identities has been discussed for decades. We have known that the stigma associated with being “othered” or marginalized in any setting can induce substance abuse, anxiety, fear, depression and even suicidal behavior.
It’s that serious. We’ve got to do more to protect our children.
This Has to Stop
Most incidents of hate and bias never make it to the news, and school administrators report that they’re taken aback by these occurrences. After all, hate incidents aren’t necessarily an indictment of a school’s climate or a reflection of their values. However, they will become part of the school’s culture—breeding more hate and leaving students feeling unsafe—if they go unchecked.
It is educators’ responsibility to interrupt hate and to make concerted efforts to provide a safe, just and equitable environment for all students. There is no way around this.
Even if school administrators and educators feel they don’t have a problem, it’s critical that they pay attention to how students interact with each other and keep a pulse on the school’s climate. Be proactive. Our Responding to Hate and Bias at School guide walks educators through steps they can take to address crises before, as and after they happen.
To tackle everyday biased language or actions, use our Speak Up at School guide for strategies that address bullying, bigotry, pejoratives and other inappropriate remarks made by students and adults.
On Mental Health
As anxiety and depression become more prevalent among youth, we’re losing some of the youngest students to hopelessness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,309 American children ages 5 to 12 took their own lives between 1999 and 2015. And in one analysis, researchers found that 5- to 11-year-olds make up 13 percent of all hospital visits due to suicide ideation—and that the number of such visits has tripled since 2008.
These statistics underscore the importance of promoting mental health at all ages. It’s never too early to begin talking about the issues that may affect children emotionally, mentally and physically—including how circumstantial influences like bullying can impact mental health.
To start, educators can open up a dialogue about difficult topics using our Let’s Talk! guide, which offers recommendations for leading conversations with even the youngest students.
Some students may not be open to sharing what they’re experiencing in the classroom, so it’s important that they know help is available somewhere. And it’s easy to make that accessible in the digital age. Bring the Crisis Text Line—a platform that offers access to help during a crisis—into the classroom by displaying a poster about the resource.
Displays like this help normalize mental health issues and reduce stigma, ensuring more students get the help they need. In Broken and Healing: Normalizing Mental Health Issues in Our Classrooms, one educator explains how she opened up about her own mental health journey to students, helping them feel more comfortable talking about their problems.
Helping students develop empathy is also a vital strategy in reducing stigma. A strategy from Power Up, Speak Out!, the E.D.G.E. technique provides guidance for helping students recognize and support classmates who may be struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.
In the Spring 2019 issue of Teaching Tolerance Magazine, we profile two states that are requiring mental health education to be included in existing health curricula. Even if your school isn’t in one of those states, we urge you and your school leadership to evaluate your school’s role in providing mental health education, and to not only offer mental health services but also develop policies that improve the school’s climate.
McKenzie Adams, Maddie Whitsett and Jamel Myles should all still be here with us. They should have had a chance to learn without feeling hated, love without being rejected, and live without suffering torment.
Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.