This month, the small Eastern Oregon city of La Grande found itself in the national spotlight. An openly gay teen, 15-year-old, Jadin Bell, took his own life shortly after telling school administrators he was the victim of bullying. School officials and others in the community say they have anti-bullying programs in place, but they are now looking at what else they can do to reach kids who need help.
More than 200 people poured in to the Lighthouse Church for Jadin Bell’s funeral. At times, the line spiralled out the door as friends and loved ones waited to sign the guest book.
Many fought back tears as speakers remembered Bell — a young man who was both strong and sensitive — uplifting and empathetic. Kevin Cayhill was Bell’s English teacher. He says Bell was rarely the first to speak in class. He’d listen instead. But Cayhill says when Bell did speak, he did so from the heart.
Cayhill said, “In my experience, some some students favor plot. They want to know what’s going to happen next. They want to know how the story’s going to end. But Jadin, it seems to me, was always more interested in why characters did the things they did.”
But as to the question of why this young man, with so many friends and people who cared about him, would take his own life, neither Cahill nor anybody else could say for sure.
Bud Hill has been a friend of the Bell family for over 40 years. Growing up, Bell called him Uncle Bud.
Hill says as one of the school’s only openly gay students, Bell was confident and proud of who he was. But to some other students, he says, that made Bell a target.
Hill said,”He had gone to his dad and said ‘you know I’m being bullied to the point where I can’t stand it I want to be pulled out of school.’”
Bell and his father went to school administrators to address the issue.
Hill said, “And that was like a week before the incident and it just hadn’t been addressed yet.”
Larry Glaze is superintendent of La Grande School District. He explained, “This isn’t a La Grande School District Issue. This is a state issue. This is a national issue.”
Glaze says because of confidentiality rules, he can’t talk about the specifics of Bell’s complaint, except to say that it was dealt with directly.
Glaze says the district has anti-bullying programs for grades K through 12. They are modeled after policies recommended by the Oregon School Boards Association. In fact, last year La Grande earned a gold star rating by the Oregon Safe School and Communities Coalition for its anti-bullying policies.
Glaze said, “Our staff has been trained to the point where they know how to recognize bullying and if they see bullying they know what to do about it.”
As far as Jadin Bell was concerned, Glaze says administrators were only aware of that one incident.
But one of Bell’s close friends, Frankie Benitez, says months ago Bell told her and another friend that he was being bullied and pushed around in one of his classes.
Benitez said, “And I’m like ‘What? Why do they do that?’ And he’s like, ‘because I’m gay.’”
La Grande High School Principal Andrea Waldrop says despite the school’s best efforts, bullying hasn’t been eliminated. It’s just gone underground. Waldrop says the kids that bully others in high school are usually the same students who bullied their classmates in elementary school.
Waldrop said, “I would say it’s just more subtle by the time they get to high school. They’re smarter about it. They do it when they know they’re not going to be caught. And so if it’s not reported to us, it’s really hard to do anything about it.”
Alixx Coy is a Senior at La Grande High School. She says she’s never seen physical bullying, like somebody getting pushed up against a locker. She says most bullying is more insidious than that. Coy says when she was an underclassman other kids teased her about the fact that she was adopted and her family lives in a mobile home.
Coy said, “I never told anybody about me being picked on and everything because nobody seemed to care.”
But Bell’s close friend Frankie Benitez says that hasn’t been her experience. She says since Jadin Bell died all of her teachers have gone out of their way to ask how she’s doing.
Benitez explained, “Like occasionally you might think, ‘They don’t care about me,’ but they really do. You can go into the counseling office and they will talk to you and there are lots of teachers that will tell you, ‘If you ever need to talk about something come to me you can talk to me.’”
Right now in La Grande, there’s a lot of talk in the community about what can be done to help kids who feel they have nowhere else to turn. Bud Hill, the man Jadin Bell called Uncle Bud, says he’s starting a non-profit called “Faces of Change” to help combat school bullying.
Superintendent Larry Glaze says he’s interested in working with Hill on that. Glaze also wants to explore ways to expand the school’s anti-bullying efforts beyond the classroom and into the community. One potential partner in that effort could be the student run Gay Straight Alliance at La Grande’s Eastern Oregon University.
Eric Martin is the co-president of that group.
He says the college GSA’s mission is to provide outreach into the community and safe space for anyone who needs it. But Martin says since most of what they do is on campus, getting the word out hasn’t been easy.
Martin said, “But if the high school was able to get their own GSA started, I think that would make a big difference out there and those students would have access to more resources than they do now.”
Martin says he’s been in talks with both students and administrators about doing just that.
Nobody knows for sure what if anything having a GSA at La Grande High School would have meant for Jadin Bell. A number of close friends, including Frankie Beneitez, believe that while bullying may have been a factor, Bell was not the type to let anybody else bring him down.
At his funeral, teacher Kevin Cayhill remarked that it was impossible to capture his essence in one storyline. He says Bell was kind, generous and ernest, curious, offbeat, and haunted all at once.
He said, “And the question in my mind is how do we recover what we have lost. And I think maybe we can if we refuse to give up looking for Jadin.”
Cayhill says he’ll continue to look for his former student in the actions, words and deeds of those who loved him.