Sladjana Vidovic, Dragan Vidovic, Celija Vidovic, Suzana Vidovic
Amy Sancetta  /  AP
Next to a portrait of Sladjana Vidovic, who committed suicide in 2008, her mother Celija, left, father Dragan, and sister Suzana, talk about their loss in their home in Mentor, Ohio.
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updated 10/8/2010 2:56:22 PM ET 2010-10-08T18:56:22

Sladjana Vidovic's body lay in an open casket, dressed in the sparkly pink dress she had planned to wear to the prom. Days earlier, she had tied one end of a rope around her neck and the other around a bed post before jumping out her bedroom window.

The 16-year-old's last words, scribbled in English and her native Croatian, told of her daily torment at Mentor High School, where students mocked her accent, taunted her with insults like "Slutty Jana" and threw food at her.

It was the fourth time in little more than two years that a bullied high school student in this small Cleveland suburb on Lake Erie died at his or her own hand — three suicides, one overdose of antidepressants. One was bullied for being gay, another for having a learning disability, another for being a boy who happened to like wearing pink.

Now two families — including the Vidovics — are suing the school district, claiming their children were bullied to death and the school did nothing to stop it. The lawsuits come after a national spate of high-profile suicides by gay teens and others, and during a time of national soul-searching about what can be done to stop it.

If there has been soul-searching among the bullies in Mentor — a pleasant beachfront community that was voted one of the "100 Best Places to Live" by CNN and Money magazine this year — Sladjana's family saw too little of it at her wake in October 2008.

Sladjana Vidovic, Dragan Vidovic, Celija Vidovic, Suzana Vidovic
Amy Sancetta  /  AP
A portrait of Sladjana Vidovic.

Suzana Vidovic found her sister's body hanging over the front lawn. The family watched, she said, as the girls who had tormented Sladjana for months walked up to the casket — and laughed.

"They were laughing at the way she looked," Suzana says, crying. "Even though she died."

Sladjana Vidovic, whose family had moved to northeast Ohio from Bosnia when she was a little girl, was pretty, vivacious and charming. She loved to dance. She would turn on the stereo and drag her father out of his chair, dance him in circles around the living room.

"Nonstop smile. Nonstop music," says her father, Dragan, who speaks only a little English.

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At school, life was very different. She was ridiculed for her thick accent. Classmates tossed insults like "Slutty Jana" or "Slut-Jana-Vagina." A boy pushed her down the stairs. A girl smacked her in the face with a water bottle.

Phone callers in the dead of night would tell her to go back to Croatia, that she'd be dead in the morning, that they'd find her after school, says Suzana Vidovic.

"Sladjana did stand up for herself, but toward the end she just kind of stopped," says her best friend, Jelena Jandric. "Because she couldn't handle it. She didn't have enough strength."

Vidovic's parents say they begged the school to intervene many times. They say the school promised to take care of her.

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Video: High school plagued by bullying, suicides? (on this page)

She had already withdrawn from Mentor and enrolled in an online school about a week before she killed herself.

When the family tried to retrieve records about their reports of bullying, school officials told them the records were destroyed during a switch to computers. The family sued in August.

Two years after her death, Dragan Vidovic waves his hand over the family living room, where a vase of pink flowers stands next to a photograph of Sladjana.

"Today, no music," he says sadly. "No smile."

'Bullicide'
Eric Mohat was flamboyant and loud and preferred to wear pink most of the time. When he didn't get the lead soprano part in the choir his freshman year, he was indignant, his mother says.

He wore a stuffed animal strapped to his arm, a lemur named Georges that was given its own seat in class.

"It was a gag," says Mohat's father, Bill. "And all the girls would come up to pet his monkey. And in his Spanish class they would write stories about Georges."

Mohat's family and friends say he wasn't gay, but people thought he was.

"They called him fag, homo, queer," says his mother, Jan. "He told us that."

Bullies once knocked a pile of books out of his hands on the stairs, saying, "'Pick up your books, faggot,'" says Dan Hughes, a friend of Eric's.

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Kids would flick him in the head or call him names, says 20-year-old Drew Juratovac, a former student. One time, a boy called Mohat a "homo," and Juratovac told him to leave Mohat alone.

"I got up and said, 'Listen, you better leave this kid alone. Just walk away,'" he says. "And I just hit him in the face. And I got suspended for it."

Eric Mohat shot himself on March 29, 2007, two weeks before a choir trip to Hawaii.

His parents asked the coroner to call it "bullicide." At Eric's funeral and after his death, other kids told the Mohats that they had seen the teen relentlessly bullied in math class. The Mohats demanded that police investigate, but no criminal activity was found.

Two years later, in April 2009, the Mohats sued the school district, the principal, the superintendent and Eric's math teacher. The federal lawsuit is on hold while the Ohio Supreme Court considers a question of state law regarding the case.

"Did we raise him to be too polite?" Bill Mohat wonders. "Did we leave him defenseless in this school?"

Meredith Rezak, 16, shot herself in the head three weeks after the death of Mohat, a good friend of hers. Her cell phone, found next to her body, contained a photograph of Mohat with the caption "R.I.P. Eric a.k.a. Twiggy."

Rezak was bright, outgoing and a well-liked player on the volleyball team. Shortly before her suicide, she had joined the school's Gay-Straight Alliance and told friends and family she thought she might be gay.

Juratovac says Rezak endured her own share of bullying — "name-calling, just stupid trivial stuff" — but nobody ever knew it was getting to her.

"Meredith ended up coming out that she was a lesbian," he says. "I think much of that sparked a lot of the bullying from a lot of the other girls in school, 'cause she didn't fit in."

Her best friend, Kevin Simon, doesn't believe that bullying played a role in Rezak's death. She had serious issues at home that were unrelated to school, he says.

After Mohat's death, people saw Rezak crying at school, and friends heard her talk of suicide herself.

A year after Rezak's death, the older of her two brothers, 22-year-old Justin, also shot and killed himself. His death certificate mentioned "chronic depressive reaction."

This March, her only other sibling, Matthew, died of a drug overdose at age 21.

Their mother, Nancy Merritt, lives in Colorado now. She doesn't think Meredith was bullied to death but doesn't really know what happened. On the phone, her voice drifts off, sounding disconnected, confused.

"So all three of mine are gone," she says. "I have to keep breathing."

'It's too late for my daughter'
Most mornings before school, Jennifer Eyring would take Pepto-Bismol to calm her stomach and plead with her mother to let her stay home.

"She used to sob to me in the morning that she did not want to go," says her mother, Janet. "And this is going to bring tears to my eyes. Because I made her go to school."

Eyring, 16, was an accomplished equestrian who had a learning disability. She was developmentally delayed and had a hearing problem, so she received tutoring during the school day. For that, her mother says, she was bullied constantly.

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By the end of her sophomore year in 2006, Eyring's mother had decided to pull her out of Mentor High School and enroll her in an online school the following autumn. But one night that summer, Jennifer walked into her parents' bedroom and told them she had taken some of her mother's antidepressant pills to make herself feel better. Hours later, she died of an overdose.

The Eyrings do not hold Mentor High accountable, but they believe she would be alive today had she not been bullied. Her parents are speaking out in hopes of preventing more tragedies.

"It's too late for my daughter," Janet Eyring says, "but it may not be too late for someone else."

'Culture of mean'
No official from Mentor public schools would comment for this story. The school also refused to provide details on its anti-bullying program.

Some students say the problem is the culture of conformity in this city of about 50,000 people: If you're not an athlete or cheerleader, you're not cool. And if you're not cool, you're a prime target for the bullies.

But that's not so different from most high schools. Senior Matt Super, who's 17, says the suicides unfairly paint his school in a bad light.

"Not everybody's a good person," he says. "And in a group of 3,000 people, there are going to be bad people."

StopCyberbullying.org founder Parry Aftab says this is the first time she's heard of two sets of parents suing a school at the same time for two independent cases of bullying or cyberbullying. No one has been accused of bullying more than one of the teens who died.

Story: Brutal bullies: What makes kids cruel?

Barbara Coloroso, a national anti-bullying expert, says the school is allowing a "culture of mean" to thrive, and school officials should be held responsible for the suicides — along with the bullies.

"Bullying doesn't start as criminal. They need to be held accountable the very first time they call somebody a gross term," Coloroso says. "That is the beginning of dehumanization."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: High school plagued by bullying, suicides?

  1. Transcript of: High school plagued by bullying, suicides?

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Back now at 8:35 with what some say are -- is a disturbing pattern at one high school in Ohio , four students who've died by their own hands in the past four years. Their families say that all of them were bullied, and in a moment we'll speak to the mother and sister of two of the students. But first, NBC 's Jeff Rossen has -- is in Mentor , Ohio , with this -- details on this story. Hey, Jeff , good morning.

    JEFF ROSSEN reporting: Hey, Ann , good morning to you. Real sad state of affairs. And it just feels like every week these days there's a new case of school bullying and suicide. And they're normally scattered around the country, as we often report; a school here, a school there. And that's why this school really got our attention. This one particular high school in Mentor , Ohio , suburb of Cleveland , a very nice suburb here in a well-respected school district , where four students, four different students in as many years, have taken their own lives. Now some of their families are suing the district , saying the school didn't do enough to stop the torture. What do you say to a mother who lost her little girl ? Sldjana Vidovic was just 16. She loved life, but in the hallways of Mentor High , her family says she faced nonstop torment. What names did the bullies call her?

    Ms. SUZANA VIDOVIC (Sldjana's Sister): Whore, slut, Sldjana vagina.

    ROSSEN: And then it got physical.

    Ms. VIDOVIC: They were pushing her down the stairs. They were slamming her locker on her. They were hitting her.

    ROSSEN: Her family says they complained to school officials more than 20 times but nothing was done. Sldjana couldn't take it anymore and hanged herself with a rope out her own bedroom window.

    Ms. VIDOVIC: And she didn't see any other way out.

    ROSSEN: And she wasn't the first. One year earlier, another student at Mentor High , Eric Mohat , took his own life .

    Ms. JANIS MOHAT (Eric's Mother): The bullies were -- I would describe as terrorists. They were little terrorists. They flicked his ear, they pushed him into lockers, they called him gay, fag. The bully went up to him and said, ' Eric , why don't you go home and shoot yourself, it's not like anyone would care.'

    ROSSEN: And hours later?

    Ms. MOHAT: Hours later Eric went home and shot himself.

    ROSSEN: Both families have filed lawsuits against the well-respected Mentor School District , saying administrators ignored the bullying , calling it gross negligence, and they there's a frightening pattern here.

    Ms. MOHAT: Bullied, deceased. Bullied, deceased.

    ROSSEN: Four kids, one school . The first was Jennifer Eyring in 2006 . Her family says bullies at Mentor High harassed Jennifer about her learning disabilities. Then in 2007 , Eric 's suicide and just weeks later after telling her friends she was gay, Meredith Rezak took her own life. And then came Sldjana 's suicide a year later. In a statement to NBC News , the school superintendent said they've had anti- bullying policies in place for years, kindergarten through grade 12 that address acceptance, tolerance and mental health. "We continue to review, modify and grow these programs to ensure we are meeting our students' needs."

    ROSSEN: But for the parents who've lost everything, the promise isn't enough.

    Ms. MOHAT: He's the first thing on my mind when I wake up and the last thing when I go to bed.

    ROSSEN: The families are in fact suing for damages, monetary damages mostly here. But they say more importantly, they're trying to send a message to school districts across the country that they need to do more to protect the students walking the hallways and they say they're also trying to send a message to the students themselves, the kids who walk by and see bullying happen. These families say if those kids do nothing, they're just as guilty as the bullies themselves.

    CURRY: All right, Jeff Rossen , this morning. Jeff , thanks. Sldjana Vidovic 's sister, Suzana , and Eric Mohat 's mother, Janis , are now joining us along with Ken Myers , the attorney who's filed the lawsuits on their behalves. Good morning to all of you.

    Mr. KEN MYERS: Good morning.

    Ms. VIDOVIC: Good morning.

    Ms. MOHAT: Good morning.

    CURRY: Janis , maybe I should start with you and what happened to your son Eric and why you think so many cases over the course of these past four years seem to be linked to bullying . Can you explain what's happening?

    Ms. MOHAT: I believe that it's the school culture, a school culture of violence, verbal and physical, is tolerated. If the kids who are bullies continue, it's just awful. They just -- they just terrorize these other kids because they're different, because they believe different, because they live different. And that's wrong.

    CURRY: You talked to the school about what was happening to Eric and what was their response?

    Ms. MOHAT: Their response was 'Oh, we had no idea that this was happening.' And my response to them was ' Shame on you . This is your school . How dare you not know what's going in -- going on in your school ? You've got the inmates taking over the asylum . Shame on you .'

    CURRY: Suzana , your sister, as we heard in this report we just saw from Jeff , really also had to face such terrible bullying , according to the reports. I mean, and at her wake there was actually some very tough moments for your family. What happened?

    Ms. VIDOVIC: There was a girl who came to her wake and she was still laughing at her and her beautiful dress that she wanted to wear for her prom. The whole outfit that she picked for prom she had it on her for her wake. The girl was laughing at her still there.

    CURRY: At the wake.

    Ms. VIDOVIC: And after going back to school the school protected the girl and they never protected my sister when they were supposed to.

    CURRY: Well, I guess the question is what responsibility does a school have in these circumstances? Ken , let me ask you about this because you filed the civil lawsuits on behalf of these two families. And the Mentor School District says that they have a very -- it has a very aggressive plan in place to take on bullying . Have you been able to see this plan? Can you give us any details on this plan?

    Mr. MYERS: Well, we don't know all the details. There's two aspects to any sort of plan. One is what you teach the kids and they can have assemblies and they can have all sorts of lessons that they teach the kids, but probably the more important part is what the teachers and administrators are doing when they see this sort of thing happening. And I believe what led to some of these deaths was that this bullying was going on, it was incessant, it was constant, and the teachers and the administrators for whatever reason took a hands-off, laissez-faire approach and didn't get involved and stop this at its -- at it's inception.

    CURRY: Well, let me interrupt you because we're almost out of time, and I guess the real question, Janis , because we have heard cases of bullying all across this country and of kids taking their lives as a result, you know, not just at the school where you are but in other schools. So what is it that you think, Janis , that a school should do when they have evidence of bullying ? Get -- what specifically can they do?

    Ms. MOHAT: A school should have -- a school should have a true zero tolerance. If a staff member sees or hears it, they need to confront it. When children are being raised by their parents and they do something wrong, do you go to bed and say 'oh, I'm too tired to deal with it. I'll deal with it in the morning?' Or do you -- or do you deal with it right then. You cannot turn your back on even one instance of this kind of terrorism. It's wrong and the kids will be taught that they can get away with it and they will -- it'll continue throughout their whole life.

    CURRY: Well we've run out of time, but certainly this story will continue and we hope to find out how this all turns out. Janis Mohat and Suzana Vidovic , I'm so sorry, we're all so sorry for your losses and we appreciate your being here this morning. And Ken Myers , thank you so much for your perspective today.

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