Sun. Apr 18th, 2021

Family recalls Iowa teen whose death they blame on bullying

Stop Bullying

Family recalls Iowa teen whose death they blame on bullying

PRIMGHAR, Iowa (AP) – If he had gone the two-or four-year college route, Kenneth Weishuhn Jr. would be out of school, and quite possibly either a policeman or hair stylist in New York City.

Prior to high school, Weishuhn, known primarily as K.J., energetically talked about heading in both those career directions, according to his mother, Jeannie Chambers, and sister, Kayla Weishuhn.

“If he could have gotten out of this area, he would have blossomed,” Kayla told the Sioux City Journal. “New York City, that’s where he wanted to be.

“He was so kind and loving, and accepting of everybody. He didn’t like to see people left out or not included. I just think if he was still here today, he would still be that person, just amplified. I think that would be reflected in the work that he would be doing, and how he would be living his life.”

Kayla, 24, a student who lives in Omaha, joined Jeannie at the kitchen table in reminiscing about K.J. They described him as a young man who liked being active outside around town, playing soccer, creating projects in art class, and as extremely handsome, with lots of friends who were girls.

He moved to attend South O’Brien in seventh grade. Less than three years later, K.J. took his own life, at age 14, after what family members called an onslaught of bullying in 2012. By June of that year, officials could not find sufficient evidence to prosecute anyone for specific criminal acts against Weishuhn, the O’Brien County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

There is a shadow box of items devoted to his life in the South O’Brien secondary school in Paullina, in an area commemorating other students who died. Still, Kayla remains unhappy that school officials didn’t offer to have the funeral, held eight years ago today, at school.

Kayla said the abuse heaped on her brother wasn’t necessarily because he was a relative newcomer to South O’Brien. She said it was because of a distinct anti-gay mentality, which was unleashed in person and digitally, once K.J. shared that he was a homosexual.

“It was when he came out as openly gay, on Facebook, that’s when a lot of the issues came out. He wouldn’t get up and go to school, or he would just sleep a lot,” Kayla said.

Before that Facebook post during his freshman year, K.J. told his mother and stepfather he was gay. “We only knew for a month before he wound up dying,” Jeannie said.

She had previously picked up on his sexual orientation and said she encouraged K.J. “to wait a while” before sharing his coming out on social media, not because of embarrassment, but because the reaction could be stronger than he might imagine.

Jeannie’s mind had gone to the incident involving Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming gay student who was beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie on the night of Oct. 6, 1998.

But K.J. countered, “I’m tired of holding it in, and I don’t care what people say,” Kayla recounted.

It turns out Jeannie’s assessment of the derogatory response by some South O’Brien students was apt, Kayla said, especially for what she said involved a group of about five boys in her sophomore class, one grade above K.J.

“A lot of the people in his class didn’t care, were still friends with him,” Kayla said. “We had an interesting group of boys in my class, who were always bullying people and being mean … I later found out, as I got older, a lot of them were dealing with things in their own homes, so it was their outlet, to do that in school.”

In the hallway, Kayla said, “They would keep coughing, ‘Queer,’ under their breath, as (K.J.) walked by.”

She heard that happen, and called out to one high school student, “Really, you have that big of a problem with it? And he goes, ‘Well, being gay is a sin.’”

“It is the area here, everyone is very, very religious. That was what kept getting brought up, ‘Oh, you are going to hell, because it is in the Bible’ … In small towns, your reputation can really get destroyed,” Kayla said.

Teachers began standing in the hallways after someone complained and addressed bullying at a school assembly, Kayla said, but that didn’t stop the bullies.

The mother and sister said things turned worse when the taunting moved into cyber-bullying. Kayla said someone created an online hate page against gay people and sent online invitations to all of K.J.‘s friends, which he mistook as support for the page. Additionally, a slew of anonymous voicemails came to K.J.’s cell phone.

“Some of those things, you would never say to a person’s face,” Kayla said.

The women said South O’Brien officials, in an administrative team led by Superintendent Dan Moore and Principal Bill Boer, did some digging to ferret out the bullying, but it proved ineffective. Jeannie said she wasn’t invited to one meeting with parents of some of the teens reportedly involved in the bullying.

On April 14, 2012, K.J. reached his breaking point.

“He never left a note or anything,” Kayla said. “His death certificate stated that he passed at 10 p.m. by asphyxiation due to hanging.

“He had gone out to the family garage — it wasn’t attached to our house — and closed the garage door, and then proceeded to hang himself, from one of the rafter beams, with an old, corded dog leash.”

Iowa’s anti-bullying law was hailed as one of the best in the country when it passed the General Assembly in 2007. It requires school administrators to track and categorize instances of bullying, so officials could see if they have a particular problem in one area.

The 2012-2013 school year, the year after Weishuhn killed himself, marked the first time the state revamped the bullying data collection and reporting process since the anti-bullying law took effect. Overall, the report showed school districts reported 5,224 alleged bullying or harassment incidents.

Nate Monson, director of Iowa Safe Schools, on Thursday said the number of total reported founded incidents was 1,316 in the 2018-19 school year, which he said doesn’t match the reality for how much bullying is going on. South O’Brien — and many districts — reported a total of zero for that year.

“Frankly, the state of Iowa has completely failed at data reporting,” Monson said. “There are no real requirements for districts to report their bullying incidents and many districts report no incidents at all, which does nothing to help alleviate the issue of bullying. The reason why accurate reporting is critical is that it allows a school district and a community to address the problem head on.”

Monson said LGBTQ youth are one of the top populations targeted for bullying in Iowa schools.

Kayla Weishuhn took part in a state anti-bullying 2012 summit that included then-Gov. Terry Branstad. Overall, when comparing Iowa districts now and the 2012 push by state officials to stem bullying, Monson said efforts have “atrophied” on the vine.

‘Monson readily recalled Weishuhn’s death.

“I remember getting the call from an educator at South O’Brien who was just desperate for resources and information on how to respond,” he said.

Superintendent Dan Moore did not respond to interview requests this week to talk about how South O’Brien anti-bullying practices have played out in the years since Weishuhn’s death.

In a prior Journal article in 2012, Moore said school administrators dealt with the only incident they knew about involving Weishuhn, adding that school staff and counselors spoke with parents and students involved.

Said Moore, “We did address the issue. Obviously, we had no idea that we’d have an end result like this, or what was going on outside of here.”

Additionally, Moore at that time said his goal was to find out how school officials could make sure students get the policy’s message that bullying isn’t acceptable.

Kayla said she hopes people remember not only her brother, but that school officials and students should be embracing anti-bullying actions. However, she’s not hopeful.

The funeral took place on April 19, 2012, which Kayla said is the day she dreads more than the day K.J. killed himself. Still, she and Jeannie didn’t mind showing a reporter K.J.’s grave in Primghar, a town of 900 people.

The headstone area was decorated with wrought iron suns and stars, plus a likeness of a family dog, many of which are items that people other than Kayla or Jeannie placed.

Jeannie said some of the mothers of the South O’Brien boys who bullied K.J. over recent years have offered apologies. She said one other good outcome has been that O’Brien County area people who have had children die are turning to her as a sounding board.

Even though there are still hard days, Jeannie, a self-described stay-at-home mom, said she doesn’t mind reminiscing about K.J.

“You don’t want people to forget your child. Even though he is gone, you want people to remember him,” Jeannie said.

“I think about him all the time.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.

Published at Fri, 24 Apr 2020 22:25:00 +0000

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *