Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sometimes, There are no Words

This is the title of a photograph I took of my grandchildren, Elijah and Layla, in 2011. I entered it in a photo contest with Smithsonian Magazine and I just found out they chose it as the photo of the day over two years ago! Oh well. Now I know! 

This isn't the photo of the day, but a more recent picture that I also enjoy. To me, it shows so much emotion--happiness, love, joy. It was taken on a warm spring day when we were at the park. Eli Lou would hold onto one handle of the bike and Layla held the other as they pushed it up the hill, then Layla raced back down with Eli chasing after her. Then once again, he helped his sister push her bicycle up the hill. My grandchildren, growing up fast and still showing loving kindness toward each other. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

In Memory of Daniel Lee Safrit: Bullying and the Lack of Compassion

Daniel Lee Safrit, May 18, 2002-September 27, 2013
(All photos provided by and property of Scott Safrit. Do not use without permission.) 

As a journalist, I sometimes hear stories that touch me so deeply that I have to take a step back, breathe deep, remind myself that there are still good people in the world, that there is still hope. When I first heard the story of Daniel Safrit I felt as if I was punched in the chest, straight to the heart, so hard I could not breathe. It was days before I could regain my sense of hope. It was too much to comprehend, too much to understand that a sweet, loving, 11-year-old child could be bullied and harassed so terribly that he would hang himself in the closet of his room...but it happened. 

May Peace be with you, Daniel Safrit

Daniel Lee Safrit was born on May 18, 2002. He was the middle child with an older brother and younger sister. Daniel's parents are divorced and when Daniel's father, Scottie, remarried, Daniel gained an older stepsister. Daniel enjoyed spending time with his brother and sisters. According to his father he was "a funny, loving child who wouldn't wish harm on anyone, even his tormentors. He never met a person he would consider a stranger. He was loved by everyone who knew him."

Daniel was the small one in his family and became involved in gymnastics because he was good at that sport. The boys at school called him gay, presumably because of the gymnastics...and that was one of the nicer words they used. 

Daniel Safrit was relentlessly bullied in school, a place where children should feel safe and protected, a school that had rules and regulations to prevent bullying--rules that were not followed--Daniel Safrit was tortured by his fellow classmates to such extremes that he no longer wanted to live.

In my 34 years as a professional writer I wrote many tributes to great people and the words seemed to flow from my fingertips to the keyboard, but I have struggled over this piece for weeks. What can I say that could possibly explain why a young, intelligent, handsome young man would choose to take his own life after 11 short years? 

I was bullied as a child, and as an adult, and I know many people with similar experiences, people who understand the pain, but I would never say that I "know" what Daniel was "going through," that I know the emotional pain that Daniel suffered, a pain so great that he would rather die than continue attending his school because, in spite of the tremendous support he received from his family, no one but Daniel could ever understand. It was his pain, his suffering.

Daniel Lee Safrit, May 18, 2002-September 27, 2013
(All photos provided by and property of Scott Safrit. Do not use without permission.) 

And yet, there were so many people who could have supported Daniel and his family, so many people who failed Daniel, and I hope every one of those teachers, counselors and school administrators think of Daniel every day for the rest of their lives, not because I would ever wish the suffering that his parents are experiencing on anyone, but because they need to remember what happened as they are still in positions of authority, still in positions where they could and should prevent the same pain and suffering from happening to other children. 

Daniel's parents never failed him. They did everything they could to save their child. The school failed Daniel. The children who bullied Daniel failed him because they failed to show compassion to a fellow human being and their parents failed Daniel and their own children because they failed to teach their children compassion, or to recognize that their children were incapable of feeling compassion.

Yes, I am placing blame. As Elie Wiesel explained, "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

I do not believe in revenge, but exposing the truth of a situation is not revenge, and we all know that some situations are so horrendous, so awful, that if we allow ourselves to forget about them we risk the possibility that the situations will be repeated. Remember: Daniel was not the only child at Erwin Middle School who committed suicide due to bullying.   

In my home, we live by the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The ethic of reciprocity, also known in reverse as the Silver Rule--one should not treat others in ways one would not like to be treated. This concept can be found in religious and social codes of morality as early as 551 B.C. It is the backbone of a civilized society. So, why has it disappeared in American schools? What has happened to compassion in children? How could one child relentlessly bully another to such extremes that he would want to end his life? 

I have cried so many tears for Daniel that sometimes I think my my own heart will stop beating. The pain of knowing, of hearing, of writing about his story is unbearable, and yet I know I cannot begin to comprehend the suffering and pain that his family is experiencing as they try to make sense of what is left of their lives without Daniel.

Compassion: com·pas·sion kəmˈpaSHən/ noun
1. sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

According to Daniel's father, Daniel believed that if he died the children who bullied him day after day would realize the seriousness of their behavior and change. Unfortunately, research has shown this is not true.

Research conducted at the University of Chicago using MRIs conducted on the brains of bullies show that aggressive children enjoy inflicting pain on others. Anyone who has been bullied or abused knows that these research results are not restricted to children. Adult bullies are proud of the harm they cause others. They brag about it proudly as if they've accomplished some great achievement.

Children do the same, and this attracts other children to join their bully gang, children who want to appear to be tough, but in truth they are weaker than the child who refuses to join in the bullying and stands alone. They are afraid that if they stand up to the bully or leave the bully's gang that the bully will turn on them, which may be true, but if more people stood together against bullies and their actions the bully would not achieve that sense of satisfaction and would stop.

Daniel Lee Safrit, May 18, 2002-September 27, 2013
(All photos provided by and property of Scott Safrit. Do not use without permission.) 

According to a press release from the University of Chicago, "Scans of the aggressive youth's brains showed that an area that is associated with rewards was highlighted when the youth watched a video clip of someone inflicting pain on another person. Youth without the unusually aggressive behavior did not have that response, the study showed." Therefore, when the bully tells his or her friends that the other person is "crazy" or "there's something wrong with that person," which is one of the favorite claims of bullies, the truth is it is the bully who has the problem, and the bully who needs help.

Again, unfortunately, the attention is focused on the person who is the victim because repeated bullying causes depression leading to thoughts of suicide. If, in our society, we focused our efforts on treating the bullies and teaching them compassion, if we studied their behavior and attempted to retrain their brains instead of focusing on the victim, there would be far less bullies and far less victims. According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death in American youth.

The bullies would not receive the pleasure they crave. They would not see the victim suffer. The victim would not fall into depression and we would not be attending funerals of innocent, kind-hearted boys like Daniel Safrit, a boy who did not feel pleasure from harming anyone or anything. Daniel was stronger than the bullies in his school could only dream of because he refused to change, refused to join their bully gangs, refused to be like them. Daniel decided he would rather take his own life than become a cruel, heartless, compassion-less bully, and so he did.

Memories Never Die 

Daniel's father said there are three images he cannot erase from his mind. "The main one is walking in that bedroom and seeing Daniel lying lifeless on the floor," Safrit said in a recent interview. "The second image is seeing him taken out of our house that night in a body bag. The third image is from his funeral, seeing my son lying in his casket as if he was sleeping." Daniel does look like a sleeping angel in the photos that show him lying in his coffin and I feel certain he's an angel now, watching over his family and other children. 

Daniel Lee Safrit, May 18, 2002-September 27, 2013
(All photos provided by and property of Scott Safrit. Do not use without permission.)

"These are things I will never get out of my head," Scottie Safrit continued, "and in a way, I don't want to let them leave my thoughts because it's a daily reminder to me of what I want to accomplish for Daniel. People say that in time it will get easier. In a way, I don't want it to get easier. I want it to feel just as important to me 200 days from now as it did the day it happened."

A Series of Suicides at Erwin Middle School, and a School Shockingly Proud of Their Response

According to Thu Anh Le, who investigated the situation at Daniel's school for an article on Decoded Parenting, Daniel was one of several students at Erwin Middle School in Rowan County, North Carolina to commit suicide due to bullying in the past few years. The mother of an additional child who attends Erwin Middle School is suing the school because her son was assaulted at a school-sponsored camp.

It may seem as if Erwin Middle School has a problem with bullies, but I believe the teachers and administrators are equally, if not more responsible for the situation because they failed to protect the children. Yes, I do believe our schools are responsible for the protection of our children. If they are not responsible for the safety of our children then our government should not require children to attend school because they are legally requiring parents to send their children into an unsafe environment. It's basic logic. If a government requires large groups of children to remain in one place for extended periods of time, it is that government's responsibility to protect those children from harm. If the teachers and administrators of the school are incapable of protecting the children, they shouldn't be working at that school.

According to Scottie Safrit, Erwin Middle School released a statement shortly after Daniel's death claiming they were proud of how the school handled Daniel's situation. "We talked to so many people about Daniel's situation before his death," Scottie Safrit said. "The schools do not want to deal with these situations. They tell you it's the child's responsibility, to make the child "toughen up."

Daniel Lee Safrit, May 18, 2002-September 27, 2013
(All photos provided by and property of Scott Safrit. Do not use without permission.) 

When the school administrators stopped denying they had a problem with bullies, they claimed they couldn't afford to work on the issue because it cost as much as $2000 just to put a camera on a school bus. Scottie Safrit pointed out that the school seemed to have unlimited access to funds when it came to buying new uniforms for the football team.

September 27, 2013

Daniel was beyond bullied by this point, he was tortured. He was cutting himself--a common response in bullying situations. His parents took him to counseling sessions and he seemed to be feeling better.

Then, just before Daniel killed himself, Scottie received a call from the school. He was told that Daniel complained about being bullied and mentioned that he had a dream that he was hanging in his bedroom closet. One of the school's counselors told Scottie, "We can't protect every child." The other school counselor told Daniel's parents that the school didn't have a problem with bullies, that Daniel was clearly having problems at home.

Daniel's parents decided to remove him from school. They were going to home-school Daniel along with his sister who was also having problems with bullies. Daniel told his mother he wanted to give the school one more chance, one more week to see if they had the bullying situation under control.

Then Daniel's mother came home and found Daniel hanging in his bedroom closet. He had hung himself with a necktie. His older brother cut him down and carefully laid him down on the bedroom floor.

Daniel Lee Safrit's Legacy

According to Scottie Safrit, "After Daniel's suicide, when we met with the school superintendent, we were told that every employee in the school system would receive training on how to deal with bullies within 72 hours. We later learned only the school principals received the training. Instead they came up with a 'Task Force.' I feel as if I've been lied to many times. So many people are bashing the school system right now and I understand why, but I want to try to force them to make changes. I think it's what Daniel would want." Scottie Safrit was not told what the school's task force is trying to accomplish. Whatever it is, it is too late to help Daniel.

According to Thu Anh Le's article for Decoded Parenting, Daniel's birth mother and other members of the community also established a task force. The task force leader is Elizabeth Bailey, another parent who also lives in the community. The group includes Eric Trail, an Educational Consultant and Motivational Speaker. The remaining members are another parent and a child therapist.

The task force wishes to remain separate from the school system, which sounds like a wise move considering the school system appears to reward indifference in its staff. The task force seeks to establish volunteer watchdog groups in the community, tracking reports of bullying and following up with the school board to ensure they act on bullying reports. They are also requesting cooperation from the school, asking that teachers and volunteers monitor the hallways and that teachers stand in the doorways of their classrooms to assist in monitoring the halls between classes. They will also attempt to make sure there is a volunteer on all school buses so bus drivers are not responsible for monitoring children and can focus on driving.

For Daniel...

Scottie Safrit is also doing all that he can to become active in the community and raise awareness of bullying for the sake of his son, Daniel. He has surprised himself by making numerous appearances speaking out about what happened to his son.

"Every chance I get I try to get out and talk about this," Safrit said. "Before this happened to Daniel my knees would knock together if I thought of talking in public. I think Daniel is giving me the power to speak to these people. This is about Daniel. He’s giving me strength."

Daniel Lee Safrit, May 18, 2002-September 27, 2013
(All photos provided by and property of Scott Safrit. Do not use without permission.) 

Safrit is also trying to work within the system. "Have you ever heard the saying it takes a village to raise a child?" he asked. "Until the community stands together and says we won’t take this anymore, we won’t stand for this anymore, this school system will never change. Until we start criminally charging the parents involved, they will do nothing to stop their children. No matter what the situation is, the school must get the parents involved the first time, when the first report of bullying is made at the school. I tried to stress this to the school, but they wouldn't listen. I still to this day have no idea who the children were who bullied Daniel. The school never told us, and as far as we know, they never notified the parents of the children. 

"It’s been a rough road," Safrit continued. "Some days I take it minute by minute, but I made Daniel a promise and I will spend my last day and last breath trying to do it. If it’s just one child that gets saved, it’s worth it. There should never be a child, any child, that feels they have to end their life because they are bullied. There’s no sense to it."
Daniel's father established the Daniel L. Safrit P.R.A.I.S.E. Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to fund safety issues in the school system such as video cameras on all buses and educational training. "The foundation will also help families in need when a child passes away. The foundation is in its beginning stages and relies on donations to fund its goals. 

The website has information that is important to helping parents understand the issue of bullying, but according to Scottie Safrit, the primary goal of the foundation is to help fund those changes necessary to make the schools safer. "Correcting safety issues in schools has a financial price tag, unfortunately," Safrit said. "The price we paid was losing Daniel."   

1. Using strength, influence, or words to intimidate, typically in an attempt to force another person to do what the bully wants. Synonyms: persecute, oppress, tyrannize, browbeat, harass, torment, intimidate, strong-arm, dominate, coerce, pressure, compel, force, goad, badger, prod, bulldoze. 

Additional Resources:

Monday, December 16, 2013


(Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.) 

"Faith sees the invisible, believes the unbelievable, and receives the impossible." --Corrie Ten Boom