Jan. 23 marked a year since Tiffany Morones-Suttle discovered the motionless body of her second-oldest of four sons hanging from his bunk bed in their Wake County home.
Michael, then 11, had attempted suicide, apparently in response to what his parents say was bullying because he liked the cartoon “My Little Pony.”
October will mark a year since Midtown Raleigh resident Geraldine Alshamy responded to the growing national epidemic Michael’s story represents by creating the Wake Collaborative to Stop Bullying and Youth Violence. It’s a task force of Alshamy’s Mary Magdalene Ministries, the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus and others.
Had weather permitted, Morones-Suttle, Alshamy and others planned to spend Thursday evening celebrating a year of Michael’s recovery. It’s also been a year of advocating for continuing efforts through The Michael Morones Foundation and the Wake Collaborative to raise awareness about the impact of bullying in our schools, and elsewhere.
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The Year of Gratitude celebration will be rescheduled.
“I’m just grateful,” Morones-Suttle said. “For me, it’s all about our gratitude for all the people who have been a part of this year. I’m grateful Michael found some strength and has fought incredibly hard, especially the past six to eight months in his recovery. And, although his recovery is a long, long road ahead of us, I’m grateful to just have that road for him to recover in the first place.”
Even so, neither Michael’s story nor that of others has raised enough awareness – or gotten enough folks angry enough – to make a difference.
“There are too many parents out there who don’t understand,” Morones-Suttle said. “Honestly, before Michael, I didn’t understand, and my son unfortunately became a statistic. There’s a difference between getting picked on and being bullied.”
Morones-Suttle said she was picked on as a child. She thought she was a diligent parent, asking questions and being involved in her children’s lives.
But times have changed. Social media prevents any of us from escaping bullies, even for a few hours.
Classrooms are too big for teachers to notice everything. Bus drivers are focused on driving safely. Nobody monitors school bathrooms. And it’s hard to navigate the system to make it stop.
“Things get missed,” Morones-Suttle said. “We’re not putting enough responsibility on the parents and children, so it’s going to continue to happen.
“Bullying has been underrated and undermined by parents thinking it’s not a big deal, but, in reality, it is a really big deal.”
‘Message of change’
Rarely is bullying the sole cause of adolescent suicide, but it often emerges as part of the story.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide attempts among middle school students rose more than 50 percent in the last 10 years. In 2012, suicide attempts among 10- to 14-year-olds accounted for nearly 25,000 emergency room visits.
“I don’t think there’s nearly enough attention around bullying as there needs to be,” Alshamy said. “People see bullying as the normal behavior of children and ignore the seriousness of it and the long-term effects of bullying.”
Alshamy has convened her task forces each month since the stop-bullying collaborative began in October.
So far, the group has secured a grant to host its second annual community-wide breakfast, including a Martin Luther King Jr. Content of Character Essay and Arts Contest to urge youth and parents to think about bullying and character.
It is pushing for anti-bullying mediation training and to establish community mediation sites to relieve the burden on schools and reduce school-based arrests, suspensions and expulsions.
The collaborative is advocating for community groups to be included in a proposed anti-bullying app that will help students report bullying.
It also hopes to establish a mentoring program in churches to address bullying outside schools – at home, work, church and in the community.
“We have to change our mentality,” Alshamy said. “We’ve got to get the message out there. It’s a message of change.”