Pennsylvania State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta has proposed legislation which seeks to increase the number of mental health professionals in public schools. The law comes weeks after an 11-year-old boy took his own life following months of relentless bullying and no response from school officials.
The bill has been co-sponsored by members of both parties and is named after Phillip Spruill Jr., a fifth grader who went to Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary School and committed suicide on April 5.
Last week, 11 year old Phillip Spruill, Jr. took his own life after being bullied for MONTHS at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary in Philadelphia. Phillip was also bullied for defending his brother who has been bullied & met with homophobic slurs.— Bella Goth (@HoodSocialism) April 14, 2019
Another Black child is gone. pic.twitter.com/WOc1KVW5EG
District spokesman Lee Whack told The Philadelphia Tribune that the School District of Philadelphia has just 323 counselors for more than 130,000 public school students, meaning each counselor is charged with helping 407 students. Whack said that since 2015, the district has added 84 counselors.
“There’s zero tolerance against drugs, there’s zero tolerance against guns, but there’s absolutely nothing against bullying,” said the boy's grandmother Linda Lash-Smith.
“No other little child should leave school and feel bad enough to go home and take their lives. When we explained these things to [Rep. Kenyatta] that is when Phillip’s Law first became a seed.”
The late Southwest Philadelphia student spent months being bullied by other students for his weight and was suspended 15 times for fighting with kids who were ridiculing him and his little brother. His family said he suffered from depression ADHD and other mental health issues.
“Because he was overweight, children made fun of him… he was very sensitive on the inside. Those comments would really hurt him. He would try and not show the kids he was bothered but he would come to his mom, dad and to me and cry," Lash-Smith told Sirius XM’s “The Clay Cane Show.”
"They were also making fun of his next youngest brother who was six, in two weeks he’ll be seven, calling him gay because he likes to dance and twirl around. They would make hurtful comments on the school bus and school saying, ‘Here comes fatty and f****t.'”
Lash-Smith added, “Those comments cut him deep. I wish he wouldn’t have been failed by the system.”
Philip tried to see a school counselor but was told to wait. He was afraid to leave his little brother alone on the bus for fear that the bullies would attack him, so he decided not to wait for the counselor. When he got home, he took his life, and his little brother was the first to find him.
“So many of our students are coming to school with adverse mental health situations,” Rep. Kenyatta said to The Philadelphia Tribune. "If you don’t have the folks in the schools who know to talk to our kids through their difficulties, then this won’t be the last tragedy. This is one step we can take in a complicated, horrific situation.”
Lawmakers said they have to find a way to get kids help before suicide even became an option, and hope the bill will force schools to increase access to mental health professionals. Specifically, the law would force the Pennsylvania Department of Education to study ways other states have increased the public's access to mental health care.
Whack and other school officials were criticized heavily for treating Philip like a problem child instead of giving him the help he needed. The school claims to have no record of bullying, even though Philips parents and grandmother repeatedly asked the school to stop the bullies from harassing their children.
"It’s a tragedy," Whack told reporters in a statement after weeks of criticism.
“There were no founded instances of this child being bullied. We take claims of bullying very seriously. We look into it. We work to be preventative — specifically to our LGBTQ youth. Above all of that, the District and the Comegys school community are deeply saddened by the tragedy and we never want to see something like this happen. Young people have challenges and it’s up to us to do our very best to support them.”
Lash-Smith did not take kindly to Whack's comments and has been speaking publicly about how the school failed her grandson generally and especially on the day of his death.
“The school didn’t do anything to stop it. They just considered him a troublemaker, and [his mom] was just a pain-in-the-butt parent. They had already been labeled. He wasn’t given the support or resources that he should have had,” Lash-Smith told Philly Gay News.
“This child should still be here; he was not ill, he was not in an accident. If passing Phillip’s Law will help even one more child, then we will be on our way to success.”
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