A Philadelphia family is in mourning after they say their 11-year-old son ended his life after months of bullying and torment by his classmates.
Phillip Spruill Jr., a fifth-grader at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary, died by suicide at his home in Bartram Village on April 5, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Spruill’s grandmother, Linda Lash–Smith, said her grandson had had issues since transferring to the school back in September and had been suspended several times for fighting.
“We knew there were problems, and we tried to keep encouraging him,” Lash-Smith, 56, told the outlet. “We just didn’t realize how deeply he was hurting.”
Family members said Spruill, who struggled with anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), had to constantly defend himself against bullies who picked on him because of his weight. Spruill also fought to protect his 7-year-old brother, who was often the target of homophobic slurs and insults.
“They would chase them and call them ‘fatty and the f-ggot,’” Lash-Smith told Philadelphia Gay News of the daily bullying her grandsons endured.
“Children are cruel,” she continued. “All Phil wanted to do was play [and] make friends. All they wanted to do was make fun of him. He just couldn’t understand why, and it hurt him deeply.”
Relatives have remained mum on the manner of Spruill’s suicide, but said it was his younger brother who made the heartbreaking discovery earlier this month. His sibling has been struggling to cope ever since.
“My protector is gone,” the little one said, according to his grandma.
School district spokesman Lee Whack offered his condolences to Spruill’s family in the wake of the tragedy but said there were “no founded instances of this child being bullied.”
“We always take reports of bullying seriously,” Whack said, telling the Inquirer that grief counselors are now on hand at the school to provide support for students.
“The District and the Comegys school community are deeply saddened by the tragedy and we never want to see something like this happen,” Whack added. “Young people have challenges and it is up to us to do our very best to support them.”
Lash-Smith claims there was little support for her grandson, however, who she said faced bullying and harassment on almost a daily basis. She said the boy’s parents reported the bullying to school officials on several occasions, but their concerns were ignored.
“The school didn’t do anything to stop it,” Lash-Smith said. “They just considered him a troublemaker, and [his mom] was just a pain-in-the-butt parent. [Phil] wasn’t given the support or resources that he should have had. We should be planning for spring and summer, not his homegoing services.”
On the day he died, Spruill reportedly reached out to a school counselor for help but was brushed off because she was busy handling another situation.
The grieving grandmother said Spruill, who she described as a “small, sensitive little boy in a heavy boy’s body,” never showed how deeply he was hurting and instead dealt with the pain in silence.
“It would hurt him to his core but He didn’t want to show it outwardly,” she said. “And he didn’t want to worry mom and dad … mostly because he knows mom and dad [were ] fiercely protective of him. He didn’t want them being burdened.”
Spruill’s family has received an outpouring of support from the community, including State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who’s spearheading new legislation to address suicide and bullying, Philly Gay News reported. Kenyatta has also helped secure several donors to help cover the family’s funeral expenses, according to Blavity.
With her grandson now gone, Lash-Smith said she hopes her family’s tragedy will lead to accountability.
“What we want from this is legislature to make the whole school staff accountable,” she told the paper. “They should be trained to look for children who are showing signs of depression so they can be sent to get support and help. And there should be zero tolerance for bullying. It shouldn’t be swept under the rug or moved aside. It’s important.”