Effingham County Schools address bullying after teen suicide - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Effingham County Schools address bullying after teen suicide

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EFFINGHAM CO., GA (WTOC) -

Effingham County Public Schools have been dealing with several issues in recent weeks and months. Last week, a 14-year-old girl, and Effingham HighSchool freshman, took her own life.

The family believes bullying was at the root of her fatal decision. Back in May, WTOC explored the issue of teen suicide after a 14-year-old Richmond Hill student, Sydney Sanders, also committed suicide.

Following her death, a number of students also contemplated, or attempted, suicide. 

In Rincon last Wednesday, 14-year-old Ashley Howard's mother found her daughter dead in her bedroom.

There are some similarities between Sydney Sanders of Richmond Hill and Ashley Howard of Rincon. Both were 14 years old, both played softball and both, according to their families,  quietly suffered through something which made them think suicide was the only way out.

As adults, we know, that's not true.

Howard was laid to rest over the weekend, just two weeks shy of her 15th birthday. While Effingham County School officials search for answers and help for students, Ashley's family is still suffering.

Her uncle, Ronnie Benton, sat down with WTOC Wednesday morning. He has a 12-year-old daughter who was very close to her cousin, Ashley, and believes bullying played a major role in Ashley's tragic decision. From name calling and hurtful words to the continuation of the bullying after school, by text messages and the internet, and sites like Facebook, he says the bullying went on 24-7.

Like school officials told WTOC,  Benton says Ashley didn't tell anyone about the problems she was encountering but wishes she had.

"Ashley made a wrong decision. She made a final decision to a temporary situation and that's sad. And as adults, we have done a poor job of preparing our children to give them the tools to deal with their problems," Benton said.

"It took us all, total shock. Total shock," Benton said of Howard's suicide.

He described a young girl who was happy and loved her family. 

"She really loved going camping with her family and fishing. She loved mud bogging with her friends in golf carts. She loved life," he said.

September 21st, Ashley's mother found the Effingham County freshman, dead in her bedroom from a gunshot wound. Ashley ended her own life, and Benton believes bullying played a big role.

"You used to have to deal with a bully 6 to 8 hours at school, and now, with Facebook and text messaging, these kids are being attacked 24-7. They can't run away from it," Benton said.  "Her parents tried to get her to open up. If you have a problem you got to talk about it."

"6 or 7 hours a day. You are being bullied. That makes for a miserable day," Fay Blye, a school resource officer in Effingham County, told WTOC.

Blye talks to students about bullying, and the legal repercussions of it. She had no idea Ashley Howard was a victim or would take her own life.

"She was a great kid. I thought she was a great kid," Blye said. "I was devastated. I couldn't picture her doing it. Didn't know why she did it. We talked all the time."

"The ones who act on it aren't the one who show signs," Randy Shearouse, Effingham County Schools Superintendent, told WTOC.

Shearouse is now working with principals, including high school principal Yancey Ford, on suicide education and putting a spotlight on bullying.

"We are going to take every situation brought to us to the utmost importance. We will treat it as if it is occurring," Ford said.  

"We can handle any problem a child is going through, but the suicide part is no solution whatsoever," Shearouse said.

"I want to urge every parent to get involved. Get on their Facebook. Get on their lap top. Get on their phone," Benton said. "Nothing is going to change if no one is complaining and if no one is coming forward and bringing this information."

It's information Benton wishes Ashley would have shared, got help for, and his family would have acted on sooner.

"She was our first. She was the first grandchild. The first one to go to school. The first to go to high school," Benton said. "Now that's gone and there are a lot of firsts she's not going to be."

Ashley Howard would have turned 15 years old on October 10th.

Since last week, 23 students have signed up for a new group, Support for Effingham Teens, focused on bullying and to help bullying victims.

School administrators will be training next week on bullying laws and issues involved with bullying. Meanwhile, the school says they are investigating the bullying claims, and so is the  Effingham County Sheriff's Office.

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