Imagine you are cooking dinner and your son tells you he is going to his room. As time passes, you check on him, thinking he is finishing homework or playing video games.
Instead you find him dead, hanging from an extension cord.
On April 6, 2009, that nightmare became Sirdeaner Walker's reality. Her 11-year-old son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, ended his own life. He could no longer bear being called the F-word and other anti-gay slurs at school. It didn't matter to his peers that Carl never identified as gay or straight. They continued to verbally attack him until that fateful night when Carl took matters in to his own hands.
The school knew about the bullying -- Sirdeaner reported it. Their response? This type of thing is everyday kid's play and will eventually work itself out.
It never did.
As we just pass the one-year anniversary of Carl's death, Black Voices sat down with Sirdeaner to talk about her son, the tireless work she has been doing to raise awareness around bullying and what we all can do right now to ensure that all children are safe in school.
Black Voices: What kind of child was Carl?
Sirdeaner Walker: He was an honor student, an athlete and he went to church every Sunday. His favorite store was Staples-he loved to be organized. He also loved learning. Even at 11 years old, he talked about college. He also was that child who would stay after class to help the teacher clean the chalk board and erasers. He was caring like that and so responsible. I just miss him so much.
BV: He sounded amazing.
Oh, he was. Before, President Obama, Carl wanted to be the first black president. I remember the night Obama was elected, Carl had his Obama shirt on and we stayed up late to make sure every vote was counted. He was so excited. Obama was such an inspiration for Carl. Carl used to get discouraged, because he was being raised by a single parent. And I would tell him, "Carl, Obama was raised by a single mother and he became the President of the United States. No one can stop you from doing what you choose to do with your life. Single parent home or not."
BV: How are you and your family coping?
This is a difficult time for us right now. But, I know that God is with us through this journey. I still love the Lord and I am grateful for my children and for having Carl for the time that I did.
BV: I know you are a woman of deep faith, but did you ever ask God, "Why your child?"
SW: No, not once. I had a decision to make: I could stay in my house and cry all day, which I was doing, or try to work with other organizations to try to see a change happen and raise awareness around bullying. With the help of my daughter Dominique, we have been working with Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in trying to pass safe school legislation here in Massachusetts. It looks like the legislation might pass, which is a great thing. I have also testified in front of Congress last year about the need for federal anti-bullying legislation. This work is Carl's legacy.
BV: When GLSEN reached out to you last year, you had some apprehension. What changed your mind?
SW: Some people told me that they would try to push some gay agenda on Carl's death. So I was a little afraid-my son never identified as gay. But God told me that I needed to work with GLSEN. And over time, it became clear to me how committed and passionate GLSEN is to making sure that all children are safe in their schools. Through GLSEN, I have been able to meet so many people who are vastly different than me. This experience has made me more accepting of people.
BV: Recently, Phoebe Prince, another youth from Massachusetts, killed herself because of bullying.
SW: Yes, it's horrible. Some people have tried to say that because this girl was white, she is getting more media attention now than when Carl died last year. No, Carl didn't get as much media coverage, but I don't want to bring race in to it. There is power in combining these two stories together to make change and hopefully that change will bring better laws to protect our children.
BV: Why do we need anti-bullying federal legislation?
SW: Because too many schools are not prepared to deal with this crisis. Schools should be a safe environment for all children, whether or not they have identified as gay or straight. I believe a federal bill is the best way to making that happen. The Safe Schools Improvement Act-a federal bill that has yet to be passed-isn't about punishing the bullies. Instead, it's about giving schools the tools they need: training staff, having lessons about respecting each other and peer motivation techniques. And this policy is comprehensive, which means it addresses race and ethnicity, gender, religious affiliations, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ability, and any other distinguishing characteristics.This is about being proactive, not always reactive.
BV: What is your advice for parents?
SW: First, please contact your state Congressperson and ask them to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act, because our kids deserve it. Second, re-engage yourself. You can't just send your kids to school and have no contact with the school. Be part of the PTO, be at the parent-teacher conferences, contact you teacher however you need to-whether it's by phone, e-mail or Facebook. Let that teacher know you are here and want to know what is going on with your child.
If your child is being bullied, make sure to go to the school and try to it get resolved with the teacher or guidance counselor. Don't be afraid to get the principal or superintendent involved. Continue to have follow-up meetings with parents of the bully until it's resolved. And if it escalates to a police report, do what you have to do.
When it comes to home life, we need to get back to our core values and teach the golden rule: do onto others as you would have them do on to you. Also, take an interest in your child. Ask them how their day was and try to get them to open up, it can make a difference.
You can support the Safe Schools Improvement Act here.
Kellee Terrell oversees the Communities of African Descent Media Program at Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). GLAAD is dedicated to promoting and ensuring fair, accurate and inclusive representation of people and events in the media as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. For more information, please visit www.glaad.org.