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.
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

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