It has been almost three years since Kerby Casey Guerra, a 13-year-old Colorado Springs middle-school student, took her own life with a hunting rifle. Guerra was undergoing treatment for depression at the time, and had attempted suicide once before.
But Kerby Guerra's short life and its tragic ending were more complicated than that. For more than a year she had documented in her diary her fear of the kids at her school, Eagleview Middle School in Rockrimmon, who she said bullied and harassed her, physically and verbally, every day. Several of Kerby's friends concurred that they had witnessed her brutal treatment at the hands of the "populars" at Eagleview and that they too had been the objects of bullying by the same kids.
Like many adolescents who are harassed by classmates, Kerby kept her parents in the dark. But in January 1999, when Kerby first attempted suicide with prescription drugs from her parents' medicine cabinet, they found this suicide note: "I know my death will shock you, but I had to do it. All my life I've been teased, harassed and pushed around. I just couldn't stand it anymore."
In subsequent days, in therapy sessions, Kerby reportedly told her parents, Donna and Larry Guerra, that she had gone to her counselor, to teachers and to the principal with complaints about bullying in the past.
Her parents say they immediately contacted the school and asked the principal why they had not been informed about the harassment from the beginning. According to Donna Guerra, Principal Ross MacAskill told her, "Your daughter is too sensitive and she complains too much. She needs to get a backbone." MacAskill later denied ever making this statement.
Two months later, Kerby Guerra killed herself. Her suicide came one day after her parents convened a meeting with MacAskill, Academy School District 20 Deputy Superintendent Mary Thurman, Kerby and two of her friends, the mother of one of the girls, Kerby's sister Stacy, and a police office who had concerns about the reported harassment.
According to Donna and Larry Guerra, Principal MacAskill denied that Kerby had ever come to him for help and most of their concerns were brushed aside. In their last conversation with MacAskill, Donna Guerra claims, the principal said he felt it was a good idea that Kerby was leaving Eagleview.
On Friday, Feb. 15, ABC News will air a discussion on the potentially serious consequences of school bullying, a subject that has come into focus around the nation following a rash of school shootings, and Kerby Guerra's family and friends will be part of that broadcast. In November 2001, an ABC news crew filmed a group of former Eagleview students discussing the bullying they witnessed and suffered at that school. The group gathered in the Guerra's Rockrimmon living room.
Unfortunately, Kerby Guerra's story is not unique. A recent ABCNews.com story on the tragic consequences of bullying in schools reports that 1 out of 13 children under the age of 19 attempts suicide in the United States each year, "a rate that has tripled over the last 20 years." Of those who tried, last year more than 2,000 succeeded.
Glenn Stutzky, a school violence specialist with the School of Social Work at Michigan State University, believes that many of those teen suicides are directly related to repeated bullying and harassment at school. And while law enforcement officials routinely investigate and prosecute incidents of sexual harassment, assault and battery on the streets, among adults, Stutzky points out, those actions "are often not recognized as the same things happening in schools that produce the same painful consequences for those who are victimized."
In a Nov. 29, 2001, ABCNews.com live chat ("How to Battle the School Buily"), Stutzky said that many of the current generation of adults working in schools "consider bullying to be a normal part of growing up, a rite of passage ... -- They simply don't see it as a serious issue."
Hopefully that is changing.
Last May, Colorado Governor Bill Owens signed into law a bill requiring all Colorado school districts to adopt policies to prevent bullying and to provide yearly progress reports to the state. At the signing, Attorney General Ken Salazar cited a survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed 10,000 children stayed home from school at least once a month because they feared bullies, and half the children surveyed said they were bullied once a week.
The D-20 Board of Education adopted a bullying prevention and education policy on Dec. 13, said district spokeswoman Nanette Anderson.
Getting the message out
Following Kerby's death, Donna and Larry Guerra took action in every way they possibly could. Larry Guerra wrote a letter to Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, to Gov. Owens and to then-President of the United States, Bill Clinton. The family filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in Denver, which was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.
Larry eventually began volunteering with the Kindness Campaign, a violence prevention program in the Springs. In April 2001 he was given the Kindest Volunteer Award by that organization. Now, as part of the Kind and Safe Schools Initiative, he takes his message out to community schools, telling parents and students the telltale signs of depression and the danger signs of potential suicide. He also outlines a specific plan of action to combat bullying, harassment and racism in the schools, including documenting all incidents and demanding that the school come up with a specific course of action. (Guerra can be contacted at LDGuerra@aol.com.)
The Guerras say they are merely following Kerby's example. Before she died, she expressed a wish for a support group in school for kids like her and her friends. Her parents describe their daughter as outspoken, a fighter who would not tolerate injustice.
Donna and Larry Guerra have recently become parents again, adopting a one-year-old boy through the State of Colorado's foster care system.
"He'll always know who Kerby is," said Donna, "and what she did in her short life."