‘This was a preventable death:’ Family speaks about former student’s suicide over alleged bullying

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HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – For the first time since 14-year-old Taylor Ibarra’s suicide, WMBF News heard from the boy’s family.

Taylor’s uncle says the family had no idea the teen was thinking about taking his own life until Dec. 30, 2017, when his younger brother found him lying on his parents’ bedroom floor.

They wouldn’t believe bullying might have played a role in the Aynor Middle School student’s death until they read a note he left behind.

Taylor’s family hopes sharing his story can save another child’s life.

TAYLOR’S STORY

“He didn’t give any real indication,” Taylor’s uncle, Jon Henderson, said. “Beat ourselves up pretty bad going back through it, and we can’t find a single point when it was evident he was going to do something like that.”

Henderson says family members were caught off guard by the 14-year old’s suicide, but they believe there’s a specific reason Taylor took his own life.

“The first trigger for us was the night it happened. The detective from the police department came out and asked if he had been bullied at school,” Henderson said. “We didn’t recall him saying anything specifically. Then, his younger brother remembered an incident where another kid was kicking his book bag across the cafeteria, and no one was stopping it.”

Taylor had autism and Henderson believes that kept the teen from sharing what was going on or expressing how he felt.

Henderson said Taylor also left behind a piece of paper that suggested bullying played a role in the boy’s death.

“At first everybody was kind of analyzing everything. It was kind of abrasive across the board. Well, what if someone would have done something? Well, what if someone would have noticed something? And before it got to the point of the tragedies we had heard about across the country, where families separate and start playing blame games, we all sat down and said, ‘OK, this is what we are feeling,’” he said. “I think that, overall, this has actually brought us closer together. It’s brought all the boys closer together.”

It was Taylor’s younger brother who found him the day he died, lying on his parents’ bedroom floor.

However, the whole family has been impacted. Henderson said it was almost impossible to get Taylor’s siblings and cousins to go back to class after his death.

“We had to sit down and talk to them for days to get them to ever walk back into that same school system where this occurred and be able to look at the kids they feel or who they knew were responsible in some manner and not act out in anger,” Henderson said. “Probably between me and mom and dad, we talked to them a good 40 hours before they went back and said, ‘Listen, this is what you’re feeling took your brother. Remember it can take someone else. It’s not OK to do the same thing to another child, even if you feel that person is responsible. In due time, they’ll understand what they’ve done and what role they may or may not have played in this, and that’s an emotion that they are going to have to live with.’”

Henderson said the family has grown frustrated over Aynor Middle School’s response to Taylor’s death.

“You have a rep from the district office, principal, and administrator from the same school where this occurred at telling us these things will happen, we understand your pain. Then it seems, within a week of leaving that meeting, the only thing that gets done is a tree planted,” Henderson said. “They didn’t announce anything. It’s like we planted a tree and a plaque to appease you, not to recognize that a student was lost or that something is going on.”

Henderson hopes sharing Taylor’s story will encourage others to speak up when they see bullying happen.

“This was a preventable death. If a teacher had reported it to the front end and the front end had followed through, if another student had the confidence in the administration or their educators to go report it to them and honestly believe that something would be addressed, this was a preventable death,” Henderson said. “There’s nothing in the world I can do to bring Taylor back. There’s nothing I can do to fix what’s happened. It’s not a reality. He’s never coming back to us. We understand that. What we want is to save every child possible going forward.”

Taylor went to Aynor Middle School, and he is not the only child from that school that has looked to suicide to get away from bullying.

Last month, WMBF News shared Emma Gibbs’ story. Just seven days after Taylor took his life, Emma attempted to do the same thing, but she’s still alive.

WMBF NEWS INVESTIGATION

WMBF News took a closer look at how bullying is addressed within Horry County Schools. Work on this story started just days after Taylor’s death.

On Jan. 5, 2018, WMBF News received this statement from Horry County Schools spokesperson Lisa Bourcier regarding Taylor’s suicide and claims of bullying.

No one can fathom the heartbreak and confusion that we are certain many of our students and families are feeling right now after the loss of one of our students. Crisis counselors will be on-site at the school on Monday, and will be available for any student who may need or want help or any type of assistance surrounding this loss. We encourage parents to also reach out to us regarding the use of our resources as well.

This tragic event occurred over the holiday break and school administration has been in contact with the family. We have also been in touch with local law enforcement and are currently conducting an administrative investigation.

We, too, saw that bullying was mentioned in the obituary and that will be a factor considered in our investigation. In answer to your question regarding Horry County Schools bullying protocol, the South Carolina Department of Education Model Policy Prohibiting Harassment, Intimidation or Bullying has been developed in compliance with 2006 S.C. Act 353. This act requires each local school district to adopt a policy prohibiting harassment, intimidation, or bullying at school, and Horry County does comply with this statute. Our policy is applicable to grades kindergarten through twelve and is included in the school district’s publication of the comprehensive rules, procedures, and standards of conduct for schools and in the student’s handbook.

On Jan. 9, 2018, WMBF News requested more information regarding Taylor’s death through the Freedom of Information Act. That included the following:

  • Any reports filed in reference to Taylor Ibarra’s alleged bullying incidents within Aynor Middle School
  • Any written response from school officials or correspondence regarding Taylor Ibarra and possible bullying incidents
  • Any reports of action taken following possible bullying incidents against Taylor Ibarra
  • A list of what the investigation following Taylor’s death will entail
  • Any data showing how many incidents of bullying have been reported within Horry County Schools over the past three years broken down into each school where an incident has occurred, if possible

This was Horry County Schools’ response to that initial request.

Dear Ms. Kaitlin Stansell:

Thank you for your request. I confirm that Horry County Schools has complied with the requirements of South Carolina Code § 30-4-10 et seq. (Freedom of Information Act) in respect to your request for information.

The information you requested regarding a student at Horry County Schools, Taylor Ibarra, is exempt from public disclosure. Horry County Schools are prohibited from releasing personally identifiable information about students pursuant to a federal law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), 20 U.S.C. §1232g. Horry County Schools has a legal obligation to protect the privacy of all of our students and are prohibited from releasing documents regarding student’s incidents, investigations, disciplinary actions, referrals, etc.

The information you requested regarding the “number of bullying incidents that have been reported with Horry County Schools over the past three years broken down into each school where an incidents has occurred” is estimated to cost $416.08. A deposit of $104.02 is required to begin the process of retrieving this information. Please remit your payment to Horry County Schools Communications Department, PO Box 260005, Conway, SC 29528, by company check, personal check or money order, made payable to Horry County Schools. The deposit represents 25% of the estimated total cost of $416.08 (7 staff hours at $59.44 per hour). Once your request has been completed, you will be notified of the final amount due, prior to receiving the records responsive to your request. If a deposit is not received within 30 days of this notice, I will consider this request closed.

The high cost to fulfill this FOIA request and Taylor’s family not being ready to talk about his death put the story on hold, until now.

In March, WMBF News cut back its request to save on costs and resubmitted a FOIA request for more limited numbers.

Here was the district’s response:

Thank you for your request. I confirm that Horry County Schools has complied with the requirements of South Carolina Code § 30-4-10 et seq. (Freedom of Information Act) in respect to your request for information.

The information you requested regarding the “number of bullying incidents that have been reported with Horry County Schools this current school year broken down into each school where an incidents has occurred” is estimated to cost $118.88. A deposit of $29.72 is required to begin the process of retrieving this information. Please remit your payment to Horry County Schools Communications Department, PO Box 260005, Conway, SC 29528, by company check, personal check or money order, made payable to Horry County Schools. The deposit represents 25% of the estimated total cost of $118.88 (2 staff hours at $59.44 per hour). Once your request has been completed, you will be notified of the final amount due, prior to receiving the records responsive to your request. If a deposit is not received within 30 days of this notice, I will consider this request closed.

Here’s what those numbers showed:

But what these numbers don’t tell is how many incidents went unreported or unresolved, what that consequence might have been, who reported the incident, or what evidence was used to confirm an incident.

Bourcier said these are incident counts, not unduplicated student counts. In other words, if four students were bullying one student, then that would be one incident.

WMBF News asked Bourcier several times if any officials with the school district would go on-camera to talk about bullying in Horry County Schools, and that request has never been granted.

WMBF News also reached out to the principal and other administrators and faculty at Aynor Middle School for comment, and we have never heard back from any of them either.

The latest request for comment from Bourcier produced this statement:

We have a legal obligation to protect the privacy of not only Taylor, but all of our students, so we are legally unable to fully discuss any student’s specific case or claims. The law hinders us from providing the public with specific student information or depth of certain circumstances surrounding any alleged allegations. We are also unable to discuss specific steps taken on a student whether it is disciplinary actions, or referrals for counseling or referrals for additional outside support.

However, we do have full responsibility as a school district to investigate all allegations that are brought to our attention. Unfortunately without specifics, it is extremely difficult for us to conduct a thorough investigation. Sometimes the situations are very cut and dry and other times some allegations are just not provable, not all allegations will have witnesses or evidence, but our job is to exhaust all measures possible to determine what happened.

We do have very specific policies and documentation protocol in place at all our schools and provide numerous anti-bullying (and kindness) programs throughout the year, which are age appropriate from K-12. We are focusing on early intervention and awareness instead of waiting to punish the behavior after the fact. These programs are developed and implemented by each of our schools. Horry County Schools has recently re-packaged all of its Bullying Prevention and Reporting information for students and parents, which can be found at https://www.horrycountyschools.net/Page/12935.

Bullying and harassment is a very complicated social issue that plagues our children across the entire world and can happen in many forms at any time. Although every state have anti-bullying laws, it continues to be a widespread problem, and we are certainly not immune to it. Our job as a school district is to provide a safe learning environment for our students, and we realize that punishment alone for bullies may not curb aggressive or bullying behavior. We need the support of teachers, parents, students and our community to help with this social issue. We certainly cannot do it alone.

Horry County Schools does have a website available to read about their anti-bullying policies and prevention efforts. That information can be found by clicking here.

To report bullying incidents, click here.

Copyright 2018 WMBF News. All rights reserved.

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