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Returning to school amid rising bullying concerns: A mother’s plea for change after daughter’s suicide

By Jennifer Emert

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    ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (WLOS) — “We’ve lost too many kids just this year alone to suicide, it’s gut-wrenching, it hurts,” said Porshea Boseman. Her daughter in March died of suicide.

That News 13 investigation on teen suicide and mental health had parents sounding the alarm about one actor raising concerns, bullying.

As kids return to school, News 13 investigates digs into the crisis happening in classrooms to look at the three things parents can do, how to get action from schools, and one parent’s impactful message about bullying.

“This is what I have left of my child,” said Boseman as she paused to take a breath, “because of bullying.”

The AC Reynold’s High School 10th grader Sabria Boseman was 16 when she died in March.

“I chose the purple because of the suicidal awareness colors,” said Porshea clutching the urn or what she calls Sabria’s armor holding her ashes.

“The bullying was very hard for her, coming from an urban community going into a foreign place where she’s a minority,” said Boseman.

The torment compounded Sabria’s depression and anxiety.

“Her hair isn’t like everybody else’s or her clothes don’t match the latest trend,” said her mother.

They’re words that can cut deep.

They might see something that’s unbecoming online and everyone is commenting but they don’t necessarily consider themselves a bully, even though the things that they’re saying aren’t kind,” said Mental Health professional Dr. Michelle Geiser.

When Boseman spoke out in May, other parents echoed concerns with emails to News 13 of school inaction. As kids return to the classroom for the start of the 2023-2024 school Boseman hopes they’ll keep one thing in mind.

“This is a fresh start, are they going to take that fresh start and be positive?” questioned Boseman.

North Carolina’s “Say Something” anonymous tip line last school year had 2,268 bullying/cyberbullying complaints from August 1, 2022, through June 30, 2023. The system overall got 10,500 total tips. Other complaints included 1,112 calls about drug use/distribution, and 759 calls about cutting/self-harm. 659 calls related to harassment/intimidation and 650 calls were about suicide or suicide ideation.

Bullying and harassment data is part of each school’s NC Report Card. Comparing pre-pandemic data to the most recent Asheville, Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Graham, Jackson, Polk, Swain, Transylvania, and Yancey County schools saw a drop in reported bullying. Clay, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Rutherford County Schools saw reports rise between 2018-2019 and 2022-2023.

I also uncovered schools aren’t required to share the outcome of investigations with parents. I reached out to state leaders.

“It’s not about what we can do overall, it’s about what can the districts do individually for their particular school climate and why the bullying is occurring in their school,” said Karen Fairley, NC Center for Safer Schools Executive Director.

Recently, in a student survey, 17 percent of the state’s students didn’t go to school because they felt unsafe, the highest in a decade, and 41 percent saw other students being bullied including Sabria.

“She stood up for a lot of kids, who don’t fit the norm,” said Boseman of her daughter before her death.

Each school must have anti-bullying policies and procedures for reporting and investigating bullying, what’s the threshold for investigating?

“Every district does that the way that they see fit. So probably that’s a great question for your local superintendent,” said NC Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Catherine Truitt.

News 13 reached out to five local schools including Henderson County, Haywood County, Buncombe County, the City of Asheville, and McDowell County Schools with parent concerns, not one was willing to talk in an on-camera interview, some claiming they’re too busy with “back to school”. The Asheville and Buncombe County Association of Educators expressed “deep concern about issues of bullying,” blaming issues on “severe underfunding.” My Daddy Taught Me That founder Keynon Lake is confronting issues of violence within Asheville’s City Schools.

“We’re doing the Alpha Mentoring Program through My Daddy Taught Me That with the city schools, so we’re able to address some of this and help alleviate not only the bullying but the behaviors and attitudes that we’re seeing,” said Lake.

Counselor, Dr. Michelle Geiser, recommends three actions.

“Encourage the open lines of communication and try to determine what is happening with your child. Your school counselors are a great resource. I would involve your child. So, going to their school, but not sharing that with your child is something that could be detrimental to the relationship,” said Dr. Geiser.

Parents should report bullying. Some schools require students to make a complaint. Collect and share any evidence to prove the bullying and follow your district’s policy, which can be found online or within the students’ handbook.

NC School law defines bullying as a pattern of communication, whether written, verbal, electronic, or physical acts that create a “hostile environment” or makes a student feel like they’re in danger and interferes with a student’s education. Bullying can happen at school, at a school-sponsored event, on the bus to and from school or activities, and it can also include acts that occur off school property.

“We have to as parents watch our approach, we have to watch our tone, our demeanor. I was locked out of Reynolds. I wasn’t able to be buzzed in because I was upset,” said Boseman.

Porshea is sharing Sabria’s message and her daughter physically. She had Sabria’s ashes placed in lockets like this one which she’s given to Sabria’s friends.

“Whenever someone wears her or I wear her, and someone says hey, nice necklace, I let them know, this is my child, and she committed suicide at the age of 16, and I let them know before I leave, be mindful of how you talk to people, be mindful of how you treat them. That we need to pay attention to the way we speak to each other, to the way we treat each other,” said Boseman.

New for the 2023-2024 school year, Buncombe County Schools has a new Code of Character, Conduct & Support Policy that’s uniform across all schools.

Parents should also know who’s being bullied. You can find a breakdown of the bullying for your school in its report card.

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