Kenneth McKinley is calling for drastic measures to prevent the same problems that led to his son’s death.
He took a group of students behind closed doors for a four-hour meeting with Wellington school board members on Nov. 8. The topic: a culture of bullying and harassment they say has left some students depressed and fearful of retaliation for speaking out.
“There wasn’t anyone in that room who didn’t have tears in their eyes,” said McKinley. “They felt the pain my wife and I have been feeling. I feel like it was a positive and productive meeting, but also an eye-opener. Everyone needed to here just how bad things have gotten.”
Tyson McKinley, 15, was found dead at his home the morning of Sept. 2o after apparently taking his own life.
The freshman had been tripped several times while walking down the Wellington High hallways, his books often kicked along the floor. On a few occasions, McKinley said his son was also told to “go home and hang himself.”
Students who joined Tyler’s father in the closed meeting told similar stories of bullying they’ve witnessed and been the target of, the elder McKinley said.
“I don’t know if the children trust that they can tell someone what’s happening and that it will be taken care of,” he said. “There’s a slap on the wrist but no immediate change. The kids who are doing the bullying are just going along their way and continuing with those attitudes.”
Two anti-bullying groups — The Diversity Center and LifeAct — gave presentations to the school board on Nov. 6 in hopes of working directly with Wellington students.
Cleveland-based LifeAct specializes in anti-bullying and suicide prevention. Founded in 1992, it has implemented its program in more than 130 schools in Northeast Ohio, said instructor Marcos Ortiz.
“The best way to talk to someone who’s considering suicide is to just be forward and honest,” said Ortiz. “Just ask them, ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’ Don’t tell them they’re being dramatic. Don’t tell them they won’t do it. Don’t tell them to have thicker skin.”
Roughly 40,000 Americans take their own lives every year, or 109 per day with 12 between ages 15 and 24, he said.
WHS student Emily Watters asked Ortiz whether LifeAct offers personal follow-ups for students after the two-day assemblies the group presents at schools. At the board’s Oct. 17 meeting, she asked what was being done about bullying and student mental health while touching on her own feelings of occasional depression.
“Refreshers can happen,” Ortiz said. “We often come back to schools annually. Benedictine High School asked for an immediate refresher and we made it happen.”
In addition to offering help with bullying, The Diversity Center provides sensitivity training for students and staff for tensions that might arise regarding race and sexual orientation. It was founded in 1927 as The National Conference of Christians and Jews.
“Many of us create an automatic predisposition of someone within 10 seconds of meeting them,” said Jasmine King, director of the organization’s school and youth programs. “Children as young as nine show preferences for certain racial and ethnic groups.”
Offerings from The Diversity Center include talks with up to 35 students at once, peer-to-peer mediation, and training students as “facilitators” in confronting future incidents of bullying or harassment.
Superintendent Ed Weber said costs of bringing one or both of the programs into the district still need to be worked out but he and board members will continue to weigh options.
“This is something I want the board’s approval on whether it’s needed or not,” he said. “State law says a superintendent can approve certain programs by themselves if they fall below a cost threshold, but with this, I want it to be something that it approved by the board no matter what.”
McKinley said he was a bit skeptical after the Nov. 6 presentations but the discussion two days later left him feeling more hopeful for what’s to come.
“My whole goal was to bring light to the subject and what we need to do to fix it,” he said. “It takes a community to raise a child and everybody in the meeting had an open mind. Everybody is wholeheartedly into this and I know stuff is going to get done.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.