Teen's suicide prompts father to talk about bullying

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 20, 2013 

Ray Brown regrets he didn't do enough to save his bullied son.

That's why he wants to tell Devin Brown's story.

That's why he wants parents and students to learn from his regret and from his 13-year-old son's death: Ray knew of at least two previous times Devin was bullied at Rothschild Middle School, but he let his son's tearful pleas convince him not to report them to school officials.

"Looking back, I see that might have been the problem," Ray said. "If I brought attention to it, maybe …"

His voice trailed off.

"I don't know," he continued, "… shoulda, woulda, coulda."

Devin was alone in his Gardiner Drive bedroom when he killed himself last month following what Ray has described as a bullying incident at the school. The rest of his family was asleep after a seemingly routine evening at home.

But it turned out to be anything but routine.

Devin loved to cook. He planned to join the military after high school, then go to college for culinary arts. He dreamed of opening his own restaurant. He worked out with a punching bag. He played Angry Birds. He went fishing but not hunting because he didn't like shooting animals.

And he escorted from school a bullied girl who was afraid to walk home alone.

His father says he was committed to teaching him right from wrong. Devin once got in trouble at school for disrespecting a teacher, and Ray required him to write four pages of "I will not disrespect anybody."

Devin was "hard-headed as hell," said Sidney Brown, his uncle, "but when people were in need or hurt, he would go above and beyond."

Ray, 34, is a construction worker who remodels houses. He also attended Rothschild.

"When I went there in the 1990s, I can't say there wasn't any bullying," he said, "but it wasn't to the extent that is nowadays."

Devin, an eighth-grader, was born in Columbus. He moved back to his father's house in September 2012 after living with his mother for several years in Washington state.

The first time Ray realized his son was being bullied was in November 2012 when Devin came home from school with blood on his shirt.

Ray didn't hear about it until he asked. Devin said the brother of his girlfriend jumped him on the way home because he was dating someone of a different race. Devin's father is white, his mother is mixed-race, and the student who was his girlfriend at the time is black.

A month later, a bully again confronted Devin on the way home from school. Devin was carrying the peanut butter pie he had made for his home economics class, and the bully smashed the pie into Devin's face. Again, the son convinced the father not to report the incident.

Five years ago, Ray had promised to award Devin a silver chain necklace when he was responsible enough to wear it. On March 27, the 13-year-old earned it: His words and actions helped avert a potential tragedy while other students remained silent.

'Am I a snitch?'

According to a Columbus Police Department report, a 13-year-old female student was arrested at Rothschild on March 27 for allegedly carrying a weapon on school property.

That student was Devin's girlfriend, a different one, Ray said, although some say they had broken up.

Before school that morning, the girl showed a group of students, including Devin, a knife she had brought. She said she was going to stab a teacher after third period, Devin later told Ray.

Somehow, other students found out Devin was the source that exposed the girl's plan. Bullies heckled him throughout the day and on the way home. They called him a "snitch."

When he arrived home, Devin usually would drop his bookbag, plop on the couch and ask Ray about his day. This time, however, he asked a different question:

"If I told on somebody when they would do bodily harm to somebody, am I wrong for telling on them? Am I a snitch?"

Ray responded, "No, you've done what I've been trying to stress. There are two types of people in this world, leaders and followers, and you want to be a leader."

That seemed to satisfy Devin, because the next thing he did was show his dad a blue toy bunny a girl had given him, and the next thing he asked was, "What's for supper?"

Ray laughed and answered, "Well, what are you cooking?"

Devin fixed a meal of chicken fingers and homemade French fries.

The rest of the evening was uneventful. They joked around as they watched "Family Feud" on TV. Uncle Sidney showed Devin how to bend and twist copper wire into animal figures. Ray gently warned Devin that he wouldn't get to move into the larger bedroom his 20-year-old sister, Carria, was vacating if he didn't clean his current room.

A while later, on his way to bed, Ray stopped by Devin's room. It was clean. Devin looked content as he watched TV.

"Good night, man."

"Good night, Dad."

'Where's Devin?'

Between 11 and 11:30 p.m., Ray's wife, Candida, saw Devin walk from the laundry room through the living room with a basket full of clothes. That also was normal, Ray said; Devin did his own wash.

According to reports from Columbus police and the Muscogee County Coroner's Office, as well as interviews with the Brown family, Candida woke up between 1 and 1:30 a.m. She passed Devin's room but didn't see him. She looked throughout the house but still couldn't find him. She called Carria, who was working late at Domino's.

"Where's Devin?"

Carria didn't know.

Candida went back to Devin's room, stepped inside -- and started screaming.

The 13-year-old boy had hung himself in his closet with a belt.

Sidney was asleep on the living room couch. When he heard Candida scream, he ran to Devin's room and helped her take the belt off his neck.

Ray also ran into the room and started CPR. He turned Devin's head to check for a pulse. He found only black and blue marks on his son's neck and his lips were discolored.

"He already was cold when I got to him," Sidney said. "I couldn't pull myself together to tell my brother that his son died. He wanted to try CPR, so I let him so he could rest easier, knowing that he did something to try to bring his son back."

Police were called at 1:40 a.m. When officers arrived, they found Devin's lifeless body between his bed and his room's doorway. The EMS medic couldn't find any vital signs and called the coroner's office. Deputy coroner Charles Newton arrived at 2:04 a.m. and pronounced Devin dead three minutes later March 28.

Ray couldn't bear to watch the scene. He had retreated back to his bedroom. Through an open window, he overheard Sidney's phone conversation on the back porch. Ray wasn't sure who was at the other end of the line, but Sidney's voice was clear:

"I wouldn't be calling you this late, but Devin's dead."

Aftermath

It took the father a week after the funeral to go into his son's bedroom and turn off the nightstand light. Now, he wants to shine a light on the darkness of bullying.

"All the ads about bullying are toward the kids, but the parents have to start stepping up," Ray said. "If I had stepped up sooner, maybe this wasn't going to happen. The parents have to get involved. This isn't going to stop if they don't. It's the only way."

As for Devin's case, Ray still waits for answers.

"The school's not telling me nothing," he said. "They've more or less brushed me off."

Ray does appreciate school officials for attending the funeral, dropping off food and expressing their condolences.

"The principal told me that if there's anything they could do, just let them know," Ray said. "But my son tells on a student about a weapon at school, and you don't call me?"

At the funeral, relatives and friends put in a wooden box tributes to the cremated boy. Engraved on the box: "Hero."

Ray's offering: that promised silver chain.

"It's sad that this is what got him the necklace," Ray said.

Since his son's death, Ray has learned at least one person heard Devin talk about suicide. A student who walked home from school that day with Devin said he told him he was going to kill himself, but the student didn't alert anybody.

"I haven't had a chance to talk to him about that," Ray said. "He's having trouble sleeping. All he sees is Devin when he closes his eyes. I don't want to upset him. I want to know, but I haven't gotten the nerve up to ask him."

Another student

While Brown deals with the regret of not speaking up before it was too late, Nicky Peters deals with the frustration of not seeing her complaints make a positive difference.

Peters said her 14-year-old daughter is another student who has been bullied at Rothschild. Peters said she has been to the school office four times during her daughter's eighth-grade year to try to get the bullying to stop.

"A lot of girls gang up on her and call her names like 'white Barbie doll,'" Peters said.

Her daughter and Devin confided in each other, Peters said, and the girl encouraged Devin to alert a teacher about the student with the knife.

Word got around to other students, Peters said, and some bullied her daughter again.

"She was so scared to go to school," Peters said, "because there were girls following her around and telling her that it was her fault that he killed himself."

One girl tried to provoke a fight with her daughter, Peters said, and record video of it on her cellphone.

Her daughter "had to come out of another entrance and sit in a car of another student until her dad picked her up," Peters said.

The fear from being bullied has caused her daughter to miss school "numerous times" with a stomachache, Peters said, and the formerly A-B student has received some failing grades.

As a result, Peters said, it's been several months since she let her daughter walk home from school, and a private counselor outside of school has treated her daughter.

"She's at the age where parents embarrass you," Peters said. "… The counselor at school calls them up in front of other students, calls them up in a group and sits them in a room together. They should be counseled individually and not have someone in your face. I think the only time they did that was the day after Devin died.

"I wasn't even notified (her daughter) was in the office crying because she was so upset."

Peters has seen no written notice to parents from the school or the school district about Devin's death or the bullying.

"To me, this needs to be stopped," she said. "It never should have gotten this far. This is a major issue at Rothschild."

Principal's response

Rothschild Middle School principal Reginald Williamson objected to the accusation that bullying is a "major issue" at his school.

"All over the United States people are bullying," he said. "We do have bullying incidents. If you have one, it's a problem, … but we handle all of them properly."

Asked whether Devin's case and the case of Peters' daughter were handled properly, Williamson declined to comment.

"It won't do nothing but add fumes," he said.

Williamson wouldn't discuss any bullying cases, but he did describe Rothschild's procedure.

When a bullying allegation is made, Williamson said, "they can write silent reports so they can come up confidentially and write whatever is going on. They can tell us if they are feeling threatened in any way.

"We talk to the individuals, whoever is involved, and we call parents. They get counseling once we find out if it's true."

The principal said Devin's death is "very sad. We visited the family. We attended his funeral and the repast." He called Devin "a good student. He was well-liked by students and everybody." Valerie Fuller, the Muscogee County School District's communications director, wrote in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer, "We offer our condolences to the Brown family, Rothschild students, faculty and administrators. We care and are committed to the safety of all of our children, encourage reports of any possible safety violation or threat, have continuous education and training for our students, staff and faculty as required by the Department of Education."

Christina Livingston, who is Ray's sister, said Devin "did what he thought was right, and, unfortunately, it ended his life.

"We don't blame those children. We just want them to know that this isn't a joke. This is real."

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