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.

NBC News and news services
updated 10/11/2010 5:25:24 PM ET 2010-10-11T21:25:24

Teachers and administrators confronting the issue of four bullied students who died by their own hands must get involved to end bullying, an attorney for grieving families said Monday.

Some of the student deaths followed bullying that 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 inception," Ken Myers said on NBC's "Today" show.

Families of victims told the NBC show there is a frightening pattern of bullying-related suicides in the district.

"They were little terrorists," Janis Mohat, whose son Eric shot himself in 2007, said on "Today." "They flicked his ear, they pushed him into lockers, they called him gay, fag. The bullies went up to him and said, 'Why don't you go home and shoot yourself? It's not like anyone would care.'"

Story: 1 Ohio school, 4 bullied teens dead at own hand

The Associated Press reported in detail Friday about the deaths of four Mentor High School students between 2006 and 2008. Three were suicides, one an overdose of antidepressants. All four students had been bullied. The district would not comment for the story.

Mentor Superintendent Jacqueline Hoynes said in a statement posted on the district's website over the weekend that the strategy to combat bullying includes having elementary school students pledge to stand up to bullies and report them to adults.

"Our anti-bullying programs have been in place before the state mandated anti-bullying programs and policies," the statement said.

Anti-bullying committees were set up in each school building to identify the causes and deal with potential victims, bystanders and adults, the statement said.

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"Throughout the schools, the seriousness of bullying is highlighted in class meetings, rules-reviews, parent nights, motivational speakers, and in visible reminders up and down the hallways," the statement said.

Myers said the district had seemed to take a hands-off approach to bullying.

"They can have assemblies and all sorts of lessons that they teach the kids, but probably the most important part is what the teachers and administrators are doing when they see this sort of thing happening," Myers said.

Story: Suicide surge: Schools confront anti-gay bullying

Two families are suing the suburban Cleveland district, claiming their children were bullied to death and the school did nothing to stop it.

Hoynes said in the statement she had been advised by the school attorney to remain silent on the lawsuits.

"But, I want to reassure the Mentor students, families, and staff we will continue to address the mental health needs of our students and anti-bullying initiatives in our schools," her statement said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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