A nine-year-old boy died by suicide last week and as his mom, Leia Pierce, told the The Denver Post, it was because he was bullied at school for his sexuality. Jamel Myles was a fourth grader at Joe Shoemaker Elementary in Denver and over the summer he came out to his mom as gay.
“He was scared because he is a boy and it’s harder on boys when they come out,” Pierce said. She smiled at him and told him that she still loved him. He started wearing fake fingernails on the first day of school. According to Pierce, Jamel told his oldest sister that kids at school taunted him for being gay and even told him to kill himself, but Pierce hadn’t heard about the bullying until it was too late.
“I lost a reason to breathe,” Pierce wrote in a Facebook post. “my heart, my sunshine, my son… he was being bullied and i didnt know. Not till it was to late.. i wish i knew everything so i could’ve stopped this… how do i live with out all my kids?”
Grief counselors from the school district are set to meet with students, teachers, staff and anyone who is hurting, according to Will Jones, spokesperson for Shoemaker Elementary. “Fourth and fifth-grade teachers at Shoemaker are creating a space for students to share how they are feeling and to process their emotions after hearing this news,” Jones says.
Although Jamel is an extremely young case, LGBTQ youth suicide is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. In 2016, Tyrone Unsworth was a 13-year-old gay boy who also died by suicide. In 2015, a trans boy named Kyler Prescott died by suicide while in the hospital — his mother ended up winning a case against the hospital for violating anti-discrimination laws by consistently misgendering Prescott. If you go back just about every year, you can find at least one LGBTQ youth related suicide case, and that only accounts for the kids that were out.
So what do we do now? How do we stop cases like this?
To start, there are things that educators can do to support their LGBTQ students. In a document targeted at educators, The Trevor Project provides some helpful points. For starters, to help cultivate a good environment, teachers can use gender-neutral language in the classroom that does not assume everyone is heterosexual or cisgender. The document also advises that educators challenge students who make off-handed comments about sexuality.
Most importantly, though, according to a 2006 study from Psychology in the Schools, LGBTQ “youth who believe they have just one school staff member with whom they can talk about problems are only 1/3 as likely as those without that support to report being threatened or injured by a weapon at school or report making multiple suicide attempts in the past year.”
A 2012 report titled, “Lessons That Matter: LGBTQ Inclusivity and School Safety,” found a few notable results in regards to school curriculum. Students of any sexual orientation are likely to feel safer if LGBTQ people/issues are talked about in the classroom, especially if those lessons include talking about LGBTQ people/issues in a “mostly supportive” way.
The policy towards LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum currently varies from state to state. Back in 2011, California passed the FAIR Education Act and became the first state to require an LGBTQ history curriculum. Last year, the California State Board of Education approved textbooks with that curriculum from kindergarten to eighth grade. Earlier this year, the Illinois Senate followed California’s lead and also passed a law to require LGBTQ history be taught in schools.
The best we can hope for is that stories like Jamel Myles’ don’t get told for no reason. Jamel was a kid that I’m sure a lot of LGBTQ people can see themselves in. According to his mom, he loved Pokémon, music, robots and wearing dresses with high heels and a tiara. Now, it’s the responsibility of policymakers from all states to take action to protect kids like Jamel. We really can’t wait.