On Friday, July 26th, 16-year-old A.J. Betts attempted to take his own life. A.J. was born to a black father and white mother, and with a variety of birth defects (including a cleft palate that required numerous surgeries, and only recently had finally been fixed). He spoke a little funny. He didn’t look like the other kids in his high school. And when he was outed as being gay, he came out to the rest of the people he knew, and that’s when the bullying escalated. Even those whom he thought were his closest friends turned from calling him “A.J.” to “Gay J.” Those who weren’t close to him were already calling him “nigger.”
A.J.’s torment was so deep he began to question if there was even a God, and finally, he attempted suicide.
When he was getting his driver’s license, he learned what it meant to be an organ donor, and his mother kept him alive for a few days after his brain was declared dead just so his organs could be harvested. A.J. would have wanted that, and his mother stayed by his side all along, until finally it was time to let him go altogether.
A.J. Betts is not an isolated case. He is one of a suicide cluster currently plaguing the Southeast Polk High School in Southeast Polk, Iowa. School administrators there post “zero tolerance” anti-bullying posters for a school body that is nearly 100 percent white, but the truth is, according to A.J.’s mother, there is a serious bullying culture there and a serious rejection of any kind of diversity. The atmosphere is so hostile, in fact, that there have been five suicides in 5 years at the school. These suicides offer grim evidence of that culture, as does a story A.J. told his mother shortly before he died, of an incident when he was being bullied in class, before a teacher. The teacher herself lacked the courage to intervene on A.J.’s behalf, and instead kept her head down while the bullying proceeded. It took another fellow student to stand up and tell the bully to knock it off. It was only then that the teacher took action…and told the intervening student to sit down and be quiet.
A.J. Betts had obsessive compulsive disorder, and he was harder on himself than he needed to be, expecting his mother’s disappointment when he came home with Bs rather than As on his report card. A.J.’s suicide note was less a final narrative as it was a jumble of keywords that underscored how he saw himself. Scrawled in dark ink, the paper contained “stupid,” “ugly,” “worthless,” and “never be loved.” In the days after he died, dozens of his fellow students, most of whom reported being bullied themselves, came to A.J.’s family to show their support for them, and to honor the friend they had lost, a boy who, by all accounts, was a decent person who wanted to help others.
A.J. Betts was bullied to death by a community of people who saw his differences as repugnant enough to merit condemnation, harrassment and mental torment. He was killed by a gang of predators whose strength came purely from their ability to isolate the weak and enjoy the complicity of the apathetic. Somewhere in Southeast Polk High School are a bunch of young adults who are complicit in the destruction of a human life. Some of them may realize that. Some of them may not. Some may care or feel regret. Some may not. All appear to be part of a community where for an alarming number of young people, the best way out of town isn’t in a car or on a plane, but at the end of a barrel, at the bottom of a bottle, or at the point of a knife. Somewhere, in and around the town of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, is a collection of people whose thoughts, beliefs and actions have collectively led a man to decide that life, as beautiful as it is, was no longer worth living.
And there you have it.