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Tempest Smith  1989 - 2001

Teasing and taunting led girl to end her life
Pressures that prompted mass shootings also spur quiet suicides

By George Hunter / The Detroit News

LINCOLN PARK -- Twelve-year-old Tempest Smith sat alone in her bedroom one chilly morning late last month and gazed into the mirror. Shortly before her classes were to start at Lincoln Park Middle School, she kissed her reflection goodbye.
The lipstick smudges still adorn Tempest's mirror, sad reminders of the day the tall, troubled girl slipped a leopard-print scarf around her neck and hanged herself from her bunk bed.

Tempest's journal, discovered under her bed after her Feb. 20 suicide, offers a glimpse into a problem family and friends didn't fully understand: the incessant teasing she faced every day about her shy demeanor, choice of clothing and religious beliefs that made each day of school -- then eventually life itself -- unbearable. Everyone is against me. Still, death will come sooner or later for me. Will I ever have friends again?

The haunting, hopeless feelings Tempest privately expressed in her daily journal are shared by an increasing number of children. Although older teens commit the bulk of suicides, at least 300 children ages 10-14 kill themselves annually nationwide. The number of suicides in that age group has tripled since 1995 in Michigan.

Taunts alone usually won't cause a child to commit suicide, experts say. But combined with other problems, constant ridicule by peers can be enough to push a kid over the edge. Teasing and bullying is a constant thread running through school violence.

On Monday, a ninth-grader at Santana High School near San Diego shot and killed two students and wounded 13 others; classmates said the 15-year-old was often picked on. And at Columbine High School in 1999, two students who'd been teased for years gunned down 12 classmates and a teacher before killing themselves. But for every violent episode that makes headlines, there are more than 2,000 U.S. children each year who, like Tempest Smith, quietly decide they can't take it any more.


'Jesus luvs u'
Tempest often spent hours in her bedroom writing poems and other reflections in the small notebook she kept beneath her bed. The notebook was a birthday gift from her mother. It had a picture of pop star Ricky Martin on the cover.

Tempest, a tall, slim blond who got her name because she was born during a violent storm, wrote about typical youthful concerns: crushes on boys; her dog, a shar-pei named Buddy; trips to her grandmother's house. She wrote about family, calling her mother, "the best mom ever."

She also wrote about the pain she increasingly endured during school. He said some things to me. It all made my skin boil. Afterward, my head ached. Although Tempest had a few friends, many of her classmates had teased her constantly since elementary school. They teased her because she wore dark "Gothic" clothing to school. They teased her because she read books about Wicca, a pagan religion often associated with witchcraft. Her classmates often taunted her with Christian hymns. Now people aren't chanting Jesus luvs u. They're singing it."Tempest was her own person, and the kids made fun of her a lot," said classmate Shayna Obiyan, 12. Tempest didn't smile much at school, said 14-year-old Jason Pate. "She seemed sad all the time," he said. Life at home was different, said Tempest's mother, Denessa Smith. "She was very talented," Smith said of her oldest child. "She liked to play the flute and write poetry."

Smith, who raised Tempest alone, wasn't concerned when her daughter became interested in witchcraft. "She asked me if I'd buy her some books about Wicca, and I said I wanted to read them first," Smith said. "The books all talked about love and nature. I didn't see anything wrong with that."
Tempest would get moody sometimes -- "but what 12-year-old girl doesn't?" wondered Smith, an administrative assistant at McDonald's Corp. in Taylor. "I knew she was being teased at school, but I didn't know it bothered her that much. She never told me."

'Her lips were blue'
Feb. 20 was a half-day at Lincoln Park Middle School. Tempest wasn't due in class until noon. She woke up around 10 a.m., showered, then donned her usual outfit: black pants and a black shirt. Then she ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes and watched television. Because of the late school day, Annette Crossman, a family friend, offered to drive Tempest to class while her mother was at work. "She seemed perfectly normal," Crossman said. After breakfast, Tempest went to her bedroom. "At around 11:30, I hollered that it was time to go," Crossman said. "She didn't answer." Crossman noticed that Buddy, the family dog, was acting strangely. "He was walking around in circles and whining," she said. "That's when I knew something was wrong." When Crossman rushed to Tempest's bedroom, she found the girl hanging."At first, I didn't believe what I was seeing," Crossman said. "Then it hit me, and I got a knife and cut her down. Her lips were blue; I was freaking out." She called for an ambulance, which arrived within minutes. Tempest was rushed to Henry Ford Hospital in Wyandotte.

Crossman called Denessa Smith at work, and Tempest's frantic mother raced to the hospital. "When I got there," Smith said, "the doctors told me Tempest was probably brain-dead, but that they couldn't make an official prognosis."
A helicopter transported Tempest to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor. At 5:30 p.m., doctors told Smith her daughter was suffering irreparable brain damage, due to asphyxiation. At 10:55 a.m. on Feb. 21, after more than 50 organs were removed from her body for donations, Tempest Smith was taken off the hospital's life support system.

Students express grief, guilt

Do you want to be around me? Ever will I live in peace?

Students at Lincoln Park Middle School are now trying to find peace themselves, haunted by the feeling that they may have driven their classmate to end her life. Many of Tempest's classmates have told teachers and counselors they feel responsible, because they teased the girl so ruthlessly. More than 100 students showed up at Tempest's funeral last Saturday, bearing cards and placards expressing their grief -- and guilt. "I'm sorry if I said mean things to you," one of Tempest's classmates wrote. "I didn't mean them. It was the easiest way for me to hide what was wrong with me."


"I am sorry that it led to this," was the message written on a placard. "None of it should have happened. If only they had understood, then you would still be alive."
Lincoln Park school officials and grief counselors have been working with the students.

"The last thing we want to do is make our students feel guilty," said Lincoln Park Middle School Principal Robert Redden. "But, maybe there is a lesson to be learned here: that we should strive to treat each other with more kindness."

More than 2,000 school-age children -- age 19 or younger -- take their own lives each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while the numbers are small, the rise in suicides by children ages 10 to 14 is particularly troubling, health officials say.
Only four Michigan children in that age group committed suicide in 1995. In 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 13 children in the state had taken their lives. While there are no simple answers, health officials believe that teasing can send an already troubled child over the edge. More than 90 percent of people who commit suicide suffer from clinical depression, said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C. "Often, it's these mental conditions that cause children to be teased in the first place," Berman said. Jean Vasquez twice attempted suicide by slitting her wrists when she was in middle school. She still has the scars on her wrists, reminders of her difficulty dealing with the relentless teasing she received as a child.
"If you're a little different, some kids can make your life an absolute hell," said Vasquez, now 35, of Detroit.

Are schools responsible?
Anybody here to hear me? No one will stay near me.
Educators who fail to hear the distressed cries from students who are harassed now face litigation, after a 1999 Supreme Court ruling held a Georgia school district liable for monetary damages to a fifth-grader because of the district's indifference to a pattern of sexual harassment.

There have since been a number of similar lawsuits, said Michigan Association of School Boards legal council Brad Banasik. "The Supreme Court case opened the door," Banasik said. "But, the person bringing the lawsuit has to prove that a teacher or other administrator
actually saw the harassment."

Robin and Carl Zaas lost a lawsuit against the Northville district last year, after the couple failed to prove their 9-year-old daughter's teachers were aware of any allegations of harassment by other students.

But similar suits have been successful. In 1999, a Seattle teen with cerebral palsy was awarded $300,000 in an out-of-court settlement, after the boy sued the school because he said his teachers were indifferent to his classmates' taunts about his medical condition.
Denessa Smith isn't sure if school staff knew about the teasing her daughter received.

"Tempest said she told her teachers about it all the time," Smith said. "I have to wonder if someone in the school couldn't have stopped it."
School administrators weren't aware of the problem, said Principal Redden. "If the teachers don't actually see the teasing, there's not much they can do," he said.
Not too late
Death -- why does it come? Ever will I die? No, no, I will live hopefully.
Educators are becoming aware of the often devastating effects of teasing and bullying by students, and some schools are setting policies that deal with the problem. In one Oakland, Calif., district, students have a "consulting teacher" they check in with twice daily, who resolves any conflict before allowing them back to class. And in New Mexico, Chelwood Elementary School Principal Jack Vermillion last year instituted an "anti-bullying" program."Experience shows that about 15 percent of students do the teasing; 10 percent are teased; and 75 percent are glad they don't get teased," Vermillion said. "This program focuses on getting that silent majority to speak out when they see a classmate being teased or bullied."
Such programs seem to work. Vermillion said he usually suspends between eight and 10 students a year for fighting; during the first year of the effort, he suspended just one. And, in Norway, bullying behavior reportedly dropped by 50 percent after a program was instituted in schools there.
Although Tempest Smith is gone, it's not too late for educators and students to open their eyes to the consequences of teasing, Denessa Smith said."You never know -- something you say might be the one thing that pushes them over the edge," Smith said Tempest would've been surprised at how many of her classmates cared about her, said seventh-grader Shirley Kovacs.
"I was sad when she died," Kovacs said. "The whole school was sad."




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