Saturday, May 9, 2009

GA: Teachers saw no sign of child being bullied

11-year-old Jaheem Herrera committed suicide last month
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Friday, May 08, 2009

Four former teachers of Jaheem Herrera claim they saw no evidence of a child under siege in internal memos written after the 11-year-old committed suicide last month.

Jaheem hanged himself in his room on April 16 because, his mother said, he was no longer able to withstand the relentless verbal and physical abuse he endured at Stone Mountain’s Dunaire Elementary School.

"I at no point ever heard any child call Jaheem gay or make any other negative comment towards him,” wrote one of his teachers, Tanya Hall Lynch, in a letter dated April 24, 2009. “Also, at no point, have I ever observed any child physically do any harm to Jaheem.”

Rather, “Jaheem was well-liked and had many friends. He was popular with both the boys and the girls.”

Another of his teachers, Bennie Pennington, said he also saw no signs of bullying. His note was dated April 23, the same day science teacher Patricia Parker wrote, “There was no evidence of bullying.”

Jaheem’s math instructor, Bridgette Dixon Thurman, concurred that she never witnessed any bullying in an undated memo.

Two of the memos were addressed to Dunaire principal Carolyn Thompson, who on Thursday denied any knowledge of the letters. She said the teachers were not instructed to write them but refused further comment.

“These letters are a slap in the face,” said Gerald Griggs, the attorney for Jaheem’s mother, Masika Bermudez. One, however, could prove damaging to the school, Griggs said.

A “prevention intervention statement” from Ernest Brown, Dunaire’s school culture chair, confirmed that Jaheem was targeted by antagonists in the school bathroom just before Christmas.

Bermudez said her son briefly lost consciousness after the attack, but Brown writes that “Jaheem went to sleep during the altercation with the other student as the student put him in a sleeper hole[sic].”

“That’s a nice way of saying he was choked,” Griggs said.

The memos also contradict Bermudez’s claim that she visited school officials on several different occasions to complain about the abuse.

Griggs said he has petitioned the school to release sign-in logs that prove Bermudez was a frequent visitor to Dunaire.

Bermudez declined comment Thursday, but a friend who spoke to her about the letters said she is dumbfounded by the teacher’s claims.

“She’s very angry. They’re trying to blame her for what happened to Jaheem,” said Alice Brown, whose son A.J. was close friends with Jaheem. “They’re scrambling around trying to cover their butts.

Brown said she witnessed some of the verbal abuse directed toward Jaheem. She has since pulled her son out of school, saying the verbal abuse continued even after Jaheem’s suicide.

The fifth-grader’s death is being probed by DeKalb school officials and the county’s district attorney.

Retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore is overseeing an internal review into the events surrounding Jaheem’s death.

DeKalb District Attorney Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming also has reached out to Jaheem’s parents and educators involved in the case, although those talks are not part of a formal investigation. District attorney spokeswoman Jada Hudspeth said Thursday that Keyes Fleming has not yet heard back from family members but has not pushed because she “wants to be respectful of their bereavement time.”

—Staff writers Kristina Torres and Alexis Stevens contributed to this report.

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