In issuing its final report on the suicide of 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera, DeKalb County cited domestic violence in the home — documenting allegations of abuse against the boy’s mother by her live-in boyfriend – as a possible contributor in the child’s fatal actions.
After Jaheem hanged himself at home in April, his mother Masika Bermudez said he killed himself after being constantly bullied at school. But the report says his death could not be attributed solely to “a simplistic case of bullying.”
Indeed, the report reveals a complex and stressful life, including the family’s frequent upheavals; Jaheem had attended four schools in as many years, including in Gwinnett County and St. Croix. He enrolled at DeKalb’s Dunaire Elementary in August 2008 after his family moved to an extended-stay motel nearby.
“The investigation reveals a multitude of complex and significant factors impacting” his life, the report said, including “serious domestic abuse” between Jaheem’s mother and her boyfriend.
The report documented domestic violence and other charges against Norman Keene, Bermudez’s live-in boyfriend. The incidents occurred in the family’s native St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Georgia.
There have been many allegations that DeKalb ignored repeated bullying in this case. There has also been an assumption by the public that all Jaheem’s problems centered on school.
But the research suggests that many other risk factors come into play in child suicides and that family violence in the home is among them. Like most people, I have known young people who have committed suicide and I also have written about suicides among children. I have sat with a dozen parents over my career as they puzzled and grieved over what led their beloved children to end their lives.
For children ages 9 to 12 years old, suicide ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in 2005. The risk factors include being bullied, but there are many others factors — chronic anxiety, previous suicide attempts, family violence, family history of suicide or psychiatric conditions, conduct disorder, child abuse, sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and taking certain medications.
I know that many of you will insist that because DeKalb paid for the probe into Jaheem’s death, the findings are flawed and the school system is to blame. But does this broader view of the family circumstances change that perception?