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Who Really Killed 11 Year Old Jaheem Herrera?

by Izzy Kalman August 27, 2009 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying

According to a new report, bullying did not kill Jaheem Herrera.

Jaheem Herrera is the tragic fifth grader from Georgia who committed suicide last April, supposedly because he was being called “gay” and “snitch” by kids in school. This happened a mere two weeks after another eleven-year-old boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, took his own life for the same reason. Jaheem’s mother, Masika Bermudez, has made headlines appearing on shows like Oprah and testifying before the U.S. Congress in its hearings on school bullying. Anti-bully activists have had a heyday with these suicides, using them to promote their agenda of making schools legally responsible for the way students treat each other.

Ms. Bermudez is suing the school district for Jaheem’s death, claiming that bullying killed her son and that the school is to blame for not making the bullying stop. The school did, in fact, have an anti-bully program in effect (the Anti-Defamation League’s “No Place for Hate” program), and the school had on several occasions tried to resolve the hostilities between him and other kids, but it failed. Considering the dismal results of most anti-bully programs, it should not be surprising that the bullying did not stop. Still, the boy’s mother, as well as anti-bully activists, are holding the school legally responsible for failing to stop the bullying, as though somehow the school should be able to succeed by using anti-bully interventions that don’t work.

The school district has just published a report claiming that it wasn’t bullying that killed Jaheem, but other factors, including family problems within the home. It is not surprising that the school would want to absolve itself from blame. However, the school district doesn’t dispute the underlying assumption is that if Jaheem did, in fact, kill himself because he couldn’t tolerate the bullying, the school should be legally responsible.

The sad fact is that a small percentage of people take their own lives. The overall rate in the U.S. is about one in ten thousand. And for children, it is much lower, about one in a hundred thousand. Virtually all people who commit suicide do so because they can no longer tolerate the stresses of life. Are we to conclude that the stressors should be treated like murderers and be outlawed?

Let’s say you own a company. Because of the recession you need to downsize, so you fire John Doe. Like many people today, Mr. Doe is in terrible financial straits because of his kids’ college bills, his house has become worth less than the mortgage, and his retirement portfolio has lost half its value. To make matters worse, his wife has been threatening to divorce him because he is a lousy provider and his financial worries prevent him from holding an erection. In a bout of depression, he decides to end his misery via suicide.

Who killed John Doe? You? His wife? The stock market? His children’s colleges? To prevent suicide, should we lobby for laws making it illegal to fire people? Do we make it illegal for spouses to threaten divorce? Do we pass laws forbidding stock and home values to decline? Do we make it a crime for schools to charge tuition? Who is to be sued when John Doe kills himself, and who is to do the suing?

You go out with Jane Doe. She feels you are her knight in shining armor, but after a few months you decide she is not the princess you’ve been dreaming for, and you break up with her. Jane has always felt herself to be the “black sheep” of her family. Her parents frequently criticized her and told her she would never amount to anything. Her already fragile ego could not tolerate the break up with you, and deciding that life was no longer worth living, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and now sleeps forever.

Who killed Jane Doe? You? Her parents? Do we lobby for laws against romantic break-ups, or for laws against criticizing children? Who is to be sued when Jane kills herself, and who is to do the suing?

Like John Doe and Jane Doe, Jaheem Harrera killed himself. No one made him do it. It was his own sad choice. The fact that he killed himself is a horrific tragedy regardless of whether the stressor that pushed him over the brink was bullying in school or fighting within his family. The school’s anti-bullying program didn’t solve the bullying problem because it couldn’t. In fact, the program probably made the bullying even worse. The program taught him that insults cause terrible harm to people and should not be tolerated, so when he was insulted, he appropriately felt outraged, which of course made kids continue insulting him. In addition to “gay,” he was called “snitch,” probably because he did what his school’s anti-bullying program told students to do-to tell. And few things will make people hate you more than telling on them to the authorities. So perhaps we should sue the organization that created the counteproductive anti-bully program?

Unfortunately, we live in an age when psychology has ceased being primarily a discipline of science and has become a branch of law enforcement. The psychological organizations are trying to promote mental health by lobbying for laws that make it illegal for anyone to upset us rather than by teaching us how use our brains to deal with the inevitable hardships of life. Psychologists seem to be unaware that when they call for laws against bullying, they are declaring the failure of psychology. It means they have no idea how to solve the problem psychologically, but need the legal system to solve it for them.

We need to be careful what we wish for. If you are happy to have laws that allow parents to sue schools for the misery caused when kids bully each other (and it is not even the staff that is bullying the kids, but their own peers) then you certainly should be happy to be sued for firing people or breaking up with them, for you are even more directly responsible for their misery than the schools are for the bullying among students.

Could the tragedy of Jaheem Harrera, and of all the others like him, have been avoided? Sure. With good psychology. According to the published accounts, Jaheem was an intelligent boy. Anyone who has become proficient with my techniques knows they could have easily taught him how to handle insults without having to snitch on anyone. Bullying would have ceased to be a problem for him, and he’d still be alive today-assuming his mother is right–that he killed himself because he was bullied.


At my bullying seminars, I have been singing a song I wrote that shows the foolishness of school anti-bully laws. Many attendees have been asking for recordings. I have recorded it with musical accompaniment. You can listen to it and/or download it, and my two other psychological songs, at the following page by scrolling down to the section that says, “download songs.” Hope you enjoy my beautiful voice!

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