Jaheem Herrera, an 11-year-old student who hanged himself last month, was not bullied at Dunaire Elementary School, a retired judge heading an internal DeKalb County School System review said May 20.
“There is no evidence of bullying at Dunaire Elementary School,” said retired Fulton Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore at a press conference where she released her findings. “There is name calling, there is teasing, but it is almost always outside the presence of adults.”
When told about instances of bullying or teasing, administrators and teachers at Dunaire Elementary responded swiftly and appropriately, Moore said. But many incidents were kept quiet among students, including Jaheem, she said.
The review includes a troubling account of Jaheem’s home life and those of his classmates. Nearly a third of Dunaire Elementary students are considered chronically homeless, and about 90 percent receive free or reduced lunches, a poverty indicator, Moore said.
Jaheem was teased – not bullied, Moore said. She referred to an incident in April when Jaheem came to school with a pink bookbag, which students called “gay.” Moore’s report claims the students didn’t understand the dual meaning of the word and thought it meant “happy.” Teachers had told them “gay” means “happy.”
Jaheem also fought with a boy in the school’s bathroom in December, and he loved to wrestle, Moore said. “Jaheem came in swinging,” she said. The fight was reported to officials a month later – one of several scuffles in which Jaheem was involved.
The report includes references to trauma in Jaheem’s life. His grandmother died in October, rattling Jaheem who was so close to her that he claimed he wanted to be buried next to her. He also claimed in February his uncle, a gang member, was shot and killed in front of him, Moore said. The family’s attorney, however, claims his uncle died before Jaheem was born.
Bermudez also told the school’s principal she planned to move back to the family’s native St. Croix, Virgin Islands, because she didn’t like the United States and the way children treated each other. At one point, Jaheem also said he missed St. Croix and wanted to return.
Moore’s review includes interviews with more than 50 witnesses of Jaheem’s time at the school. The review states Jaheem was a good student who, at the time of his death, was improving. He also enjoyed drawing and dancing.
“There is name-calling. There is teasing,” Moore said. “But I will tell you that it is almost always done outside the presence of adults. … There is a code of silence among the students.”
Jaheem hanged himself at home on April 16, and his mother, Masika Bermudez, claims school bullies were the cause. Bermudez attended the press conference. She and a small group of friends, family and sympathizers were kept in a side room with a television away from Moore and the media. Bermudez broke down and began crying several minutes into the press conference, and security guards dragged out a man who shouted in protest.
“Shame! Shame! Shame on DeKalb County! Shame on the school system!” the man said as he was dragged by several guards onto the sidewalk. “Shame on Judge Cummings!”
After the press conference, Bermudez’s attorney, who has filed an intent to sue the district, said Moore’s findings were shocking.
“We’ve done our own investigation that turned up different facts,” he said. “There was bullying. It was the cause [of Jaheem’s hanging].”