Playground Rules

The suicides of four Texas students due to bullying have led to proposed new legislation for schools this spring. Is it enough to help the victims? Lawyer Marty Cirkiel doesn’t think so.
HOLLANDSWORTH
Illustration by Mike Benny

One afternoon last summer, I pulled into the parking lot of R.C. Loflin Middle School, in Joshua, a town south of Fort Worth, where thirty or so people had gathered. Many of them wore T-shirts inscribed with slogans such as “Stop the Violence” and “You Must Be the Change You Wish to See in the World.” A few held signs that read “Stand for the Silent.” Almost everyone was milling around a wobbly folding table, staring at framed photographs of about 25 good-looking, smiling children and teenagers from around the country who had recently committed suicide. Prominently displayed at the front of the table were photos of fifteen-year-old Hunter Layland, from the nearby town of Cleburne, who had shot himself before school on September 30, 2009; Montana Lance, a nine-year-old from the Colony, near Lewisville, who had hanged himself in the bathroom at the nurse’s office in his elementary school on January 21, 2010; and Jon Carmichael, a Joshua teenager who had attended this very middle school and who had been found hanging in a barn behind his home on March 28, 2010.

Like every other kid in the photographs, the three boys had killed themselves after years of taunting and bullying by school classmates. “Hunter was teased almost all his life because he had hearing problems and a scar on his face, which he got in a car wreck when he was just a toddler,” his mother, Melanie, told me. “One boy used to tell him that if he had a face like that, he’d shoot himself.” Debbie and Jason Lance, who were standing near the table wearing pink T-shirts that read “The Bullying Stops Here,” said that Montana had been bullied since the second grade because he had a speech impediment and was prone to emotional outbursts. “The kids called him gay and refused to sit with him at lunch,” Jason said. “He would ask his teachers if he could stay inside rather than go out to recess, where the kids hit him and pushed him around. But the teachers always made him go out to the playground. Finally, to get away from the boys, he started saying he was sick so he could be sent to the nurse’s office.”

A few minutes later, Tami Carmichael, whose T-shirt was emblazoned with the image of her son, walked up. She told me that for reasons no one quite understood, Jon became the target of the popular, athletic kids at school. “He was pushed to the ground on an almost daily basis. They’d throw him in the school’s dumpster a couple times a week, and they stuck him head-down in a toilet and started flushing,” she said. “One day they stripped him naked, tied him up, and stuck him in a trash can, and they taped it with their cell phones and put it all on YouTube.”

That was a day or two before Jon, a small kid with a mop of brown hair, had slipped out to the barn. “We didn’t know where he had gone until my husband went to feed our horse,” Tami said. “And then I heard my husband make a sound I had never heard him make before. He started shouting, ‘No, Jon, no!’ I ran out and saw Jon with a belt around his neck, hanging from a rafter, and I saw my husband struggling to push him up so he could breathe. I climbed a ladder to undo the belt. But by the time we got Jon down, he was already cold.”

The three suicides—which took place within a span of six months—would be followed by another that fall. In October, Asher Brown, a Houston eighth grader and straight-A student, shot himself in the head after classmates performed mock gay sexual acts on him in gym class and ridiculed him because he was a Buddhist who didn’t wear designer clothes. The students’ deaths, which appeared to coincide with other “bullycides” around the country, such as that of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, sent shock waves across Texas. Front-page newspaper stories detailed the modern-day perils of bullying; activists held rallies against the harassment of gay students; TV outlets debated the effects of online abuse, or cyberbullying; and state legislators vowed to propose laws that gave schools greater authority to stop bullies.

What was not reported amid all the noise and soul-searching was that each of the Texas families who had lost a son quietly met with a little-known lawyer named Marty Cirkiel. He asked if they would let him do something that had rarely been attempted, in Texas or the country: sue their children’s school districts for allowing the bullying to have occurred in the first place.

Marty Cirkiel is a 61-year-old former social worker with a salt-and-pepper beard who usually wears jeans, a T-shirt, and work boots to his office in Round Rock, outside Austin. A native of New York, he came to Texas with his wife in 1981, spent several years working in a state mental-health outpatient center, and then enrolled in St. Mary’s University School of Law, in San Antonio. After graduating, in 1992, Cirkiel specialized in juvenile law and Child Protective Services cases, and periodically he’d be hired by a family with a special-needs child to file an administrative complaint with the Texas Education Agency against a school district for not providing required services to that child. “What stunned me was how many of the families’ complaints were about their kids’ getting bullied,” Cirkiel recently told me. “One kid had pencils stuck up his rectum. Another was burned and branded with a heated paper clip. A boy with autism was sexually assaulted. I thought times had changed, that kids were more accepting of other kids. What I realized was that there was more pressure than ever on those who did not fit in. And I also realized that almost no one was doing anything about it.”

Bullying, of course, has been around forever, a survival-of-the-fittest reality on the playground that

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