It is late May and still considered springtime, but it feels like the most oppressively hot summer day as afternoon begins in Prestonsburg, Ky. Most people are hurrying toward some cool indoor sanctuary, and there is generally not much activity about. Most except Sheila Patton, 42, who stands outside the Floyd County judicial center under no shade with a homemade poster of her son, 13-year-old Stephen Patton, tucked between her legs.
She could be sitting inside. The air-conditioned lobby of the remodeled courthouse is an oasis compared to the oven of Eastern Kentucky humidity. But she doesn’t move. She doesn’t seem to notice the heat. Her life for the past six months makes things like that seem insignificant.
On Nov. 28, 2007, Sheila’s day began as usual. It was a Wednesday morning and her husband, Lawrence, 48, woke Stephen up for school. Though married for more than 25 years, Sheila said they’d purposefully waited more than a decade before deciding to have children.
“We wanted to make sure we were together,” she said. They also wanted to be financially stable. Maybe that’s why they spoiled Stephen a little. And maybe they were overprotective, insisting on driving him to school daily instead of him riding the bus, for example. Their son consumed their lives.
That morning, Sheila had asked him how he was doing. “He said he was fine,” she said.
She was making breakfast when she heard a loud thud. It alarmed her and Lawrence enough that they raced to Stephen’s room, where they found him lying motionless with his head next to the heater. Blood was coming from his head. At first they thought he fell and hit his head on the heater. They called 911 and waited for the ambulance; Lawrence put a towel on his son’s head. Stephen, still breathing, was gurgling for oxygen. His eyes turned blue. When medical help finally arrived, Sheila and Lawrence believed their son would be OK. But his condition quickly worsened.
“The EMT ran back to the ambulance to get the stretcher,” Sheila recalled. “I knew it was worse than I thought it was.”
They waited hours in the emergency room and were still unsure what had happened when the doctor came with grim news: Stephen was pronounced dead at 1:51 p.m. The cause was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The Pattons hadn’t seen the 9mm handgun that police would later find in his room.
Sheila cannot remember her immediate reaction to the news. What turned her stomach, though, was when police tested her and Lawrence’s hands for gunpowder residue. It is standard operating procedure, she knows. She remembers it vividly.
She also remembers a happier Stephen, describing him as an outdoorsman and a kinetic genius, a licensed hunter who could weld, build fish traps, engine parts and drive her car without much instruction.
“He was a gifted child,” she said.
Trained as a social worker with a lifetime in human services work, Sheila tears up when admitting that she didn’t consider Stephen’s unwillingness to attend school or his recurring headaches as symptoms of a more serious problem.
The Patton family was in the dark until a memorial service was held in Stephen’s honor. The service drew well over 1,200 people. There, several students and teachers came forward to tell Sheila and Lawrence stories of Stephen’s torment — the bullying and harassment at Allen Central Middle School, where he was in the 8th grade.
“We didn’t have any clue,” Sheila said.
Though only 13 years old, Stephen stood at six-foot-three, weighed nearly 180 lbs. and was already shaving a full mustache. He didn’t fit the stereotype of the bullied kid. Sheila admits that may have been one of the reasons she didn’t ask her son if he was being picked on. Though a man-child in size who no one could physically intimidate, according to the Pattons, Stephen suffered verbal ridicule and was ostracized, mainly for his slight stutter and for being the kid who wore cowboy boots to school.
She said the testimonies at Stephen’s memorial were punctuated when they cleaned out his locker a few weeks later: They found grocery bags of food that he’d been hoarding to avoid bullying during lunch hours.
“There were days he wasn’t eating,” Sheila said. “That’s devastating to know my child was at school doing without.”
Vanessa Cantley, an attorney from Louisville who represents the Patton family, said a private investigation was conducted in December that included interviews with students, teachers and parents in the community. She said the investigation showed that Stephen had been the victim of serious abuse, to which school officials had turned a blind eye.
“This was a well-known problem in that school system,” Cantley told LEO Weekly. “Nothing was being done, which is in direct violation of bullying and harassment polices that were enacted just before Stephen died.”
Back in Prestonsburg, outside the judicial center, Sheila stands amid the Eastern Kentucky humidity, waiting for Cantley and her co-counsel, Jasper Ward, who have driven nearly three hours from their law office in downtown Louisville to her small town in Floyd County, near Kentucky’s eastern border. The attorneys greet Sheila and Lawrence briefly before they all head inside to formally file a lawsuit against Davida Bickford, the principal of Allen Central Middle School, and Paul Fanning, the former superintendent of the Floyd County School District. They will be in the courthouse for only a few short minutes, but for Sheila, it is a big moment.
Michael Schmitt, the attorney for the Floyd County school district, who is representing both Bickford and Fanning, said his clients were shocked and saddened by Stephen’s death, but there is no evidence that links his suicide to any bullying.
“We don’t know the cause,” he told LEO Weekly.
According to Schmitt, Bickford had no knowledge of Stephen being bullied while he attended Allen Central. He maintains that as principal, Bickford worked vigorously to promote goodwill among all students, conducting at least three different anti-bullying workshops in the fall 2007 semester.
“Ms. Bickford had speakers come to the school, had anti-bullying workshops on how to report it, deal with it and get school officials involved,” Schmitt said.
While he doesn’t begrudge the Patton family for obtaining legal counsel, Schmitt said Cantley obstructed the investigation when she refused to let Floyd County administrators speak with the family after they retained her services — almost a month after Stephen’s suicide.
According to Schmitt, Cantley said he could get all the information from their independent investigation and through the discovery process, once the lawsuit had been filed. A lawsuit only presents one side of a matter.
“It prevented the school district from obtaining the information Mrs. Patton had originally asked for,” Schmitt said. “When the school tried to investigate, we were denied information because (Mrs. Patton) refused to speak with personnel from the superintendent’s office.” Schmitt said he thinks the case will go to court within the year, and that a settlement is not likely.
Meanwhile, Cantley has her hands full with similar cases from across Kentucky. The Patton case is one of three lawsuits Cantley has filed that deal with severe bullying in schools. She is also representing the Overmyer family from Meade County, whose son Jacob, 11, was repeatedly abused, menaced and sexually assaulted while attending Flaherty Elementary School, according to the lawsuit.
Jacob’s father, Michael, said he made multiple visits to Flaherty Elementary to speak with the principal, Amanda Richardson, and vice principal, Jon Miller, once he learned what happened to his son. He said he was ensured that the boys who assaulted his son would be punished, and that one would be expelled. When he returned with Jacob to school the next day, Overmyer said the boys were still there.
Overmyer said he contacted Meade County Superintendent Mitchell Crump about Jacob transferring to another school in the county. “He said that was not an option,” Overmyer told LEO. Fed up, he pulled Jacob from Flaherty; now he schools him at home while taking a leave of absence from one of his two jobs. He plans to put Jacob back in school once he secures a new job in Louisville.
“It’s tough,” Overmyer said. “I feel
like I’ve lost part of my son.” The attorney representing the Meade County School Board did not return multiple requests for comment.
Cantley also represents the Badon family, whose son Hunter, according to a lawsuit filed recently, was continually hazed as a freshman on the South Oldham High School wrestling team. Cantley said the Badon case is especially disturbing because of the extensive physical abuse Hunter may have suffered: The lawsuit alleges that Hunter had been forced to fight another student, choked to unconsciousness and beaten daily by upperclassmen on the team with the full knowledge and encouragement of the wrestling coach, Steve Fiser, who is named as a defendant.
Since the incidents, the Badon family has relocated to Tennessee and declined to comment for this story. None of the school boards involved would comment for this story, other than through their attorneys.
“Oldham County and all its employees acted appropriately and acted swiftly,” Mark Fenzel, an Oldham County attorney representing the school board, said. The school board has issued a public statement denying all liability, and Fenzel said they’re awaiting the next legal steps.
Coined by journalist Neil Marr, the term bullycide is defined as a suicide caused by depression due to bullying. It is becoming a popular stream of logic among educators, parents and legal experts seeking a single answer to the escalation of violence, stress and suicide in America’s schoolyards. Instead of taking their anger and depression out on others, as was the case with Michael Carneal, who killed three of his fellow classmates in the 1997 Heath High School shooting in Paducah, experts say victims of bullycide channel their frustration inward.
Maurice Risner, JCPS Director of Student Relations and Safety, said that what have escalated over the years are the subtler forms of bullying that school officials often miss because they’re not properly trained to identify the new signs.
“When I was an assistant principal, it was more forthright,” said Risner, a veteran of the school system who has worked as a teacher, assistant principle and administrator in Jefferson County Public Schools for more than 35 years. Bullying is no longer a kid being shoved in the hall or called an ugly name out loud. Today’s bullying, Risner said, is a constant harassment that can follow a child for several years, perhaps even into adulthood.
“They’re ganging up on kids now and it is masked,” he said.
Risner told LEO that JCPS trains it staff, administrators and counselors on how to identify bullying with regular year-round workshops. Risner’s staff includes two behavior specialists who deal with classroom behavior, disciplinary measures for bullies and develop anti-bullying strategies for teachers, parents and students.
“I don’t know if bullying is a problem (in JCPS schools),” he said. “However, it is definitely on our radar.”
Still, Cantley and others have a hard time when asked to distinguish between regular bullying and what she calls child abuse, which she said her clients’ children endured at their respective schools. “I hate the word bullying,” she said. Immersing herself in the subject since taking on the three cases, she now believes that bullying is a misnomer for what happened to these kids. “We think of the word bullying as being teased on the playground. That’s not what’s going on here. It’s child abuse.”
Bullycide experts are tongue-tied on the matter of whether to criminalize bullies, which became a subject of much debate during this year’s session of the Kentucky General Assembly (see sidebar, page 11). In the Badon case, the lawsuit against South Oldham High School names as defendants two students who are barely over the age of 17. Creating a slippery slope could entangle easily reconciled situations of teasing in a web of litigation and character smears that could sustain into adulthood and effect employment and further academic pursuits. No one seems sure where the so-called torture begins and simple bullying ends. Many teachers and parents say they expect a certain amount of teasing as a test of character, something normal that takes place between kids who are jockeying for social status.
Should teasers and bullies go to jail?
“You’re always going to have a little bit of teasing in school,” said Drew Jenkins, an aide to Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway. “It gets to be a problem when kids are just being harassed to the point that there’s no escape.”
When asked about prosecuting bullies, Jenkins admitted it is a tough question that is up to local prosecutors and juries to decide. The Attorney General’s office, he said, is more focused on educating the public about bullying issues, especially parents who may need to monitor their kids online.
Since taking office earlier this year, Conway has placed heavy emphasis on cyber harassment that occurs on social networking sites such as MySpace. His office has held workshops around the Bluegrass about cyber-bullying, using real examples of Kentucky students who have committed suicide after being harassed online and sometimes appearing with members of their families.
“Students are paying attention, asking questions and getting the message,” Jenkins said. However, none of the children Cantley represents were bullied online. Stephen Patton’s home doesn’t even have Internet access.
Sheila Patton is having a hard time. Waking up each day is a miserable struggle. She and Lawrence still haven’t cleaned Stephen’s room; the bloodstains in the carpet and on the mattress remain.
“It is one hour at a time,” she said. Coping with her son’s suicide plunged Sheila into her own emotional spiral. She told LEO Weekly that since Stephen’s death, doctors have prescribed her with both anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication. She sees a psychologist regularly. She prays even more.
“Our lives are destroyed,” she said. “We’re not the same family, we have nothing, we have nobody and nothing really matters.”