Bullying tied to a victim’s sexual orientation is cruel and wrong. It appears to have been a factor in the tragic case of a 13-year-old Moab girl who took her own life in January after months of harassment by other teenagers. The case has since moved in a couple of unique directions, with prosecutors apparently looking into criminal charges against three teenage boys suspected of bullying the girl, while her mother has begun pushing for adoption of a local effort to deal with such cases known as “restorative justice,” which seeks to make a community whole after wrong doing through implementing solutions rather than solely focusing on punitive punishments against alleged perpetrators.
Sadly, the story of Lily Clara McClish is not unique. She was the victim of harsh treatment by kids at her school after she worked to promote tolerance for students of all sexual orientations, and she came out herself as a lesbian. The Utah Department of Health has documented a link between bullying and suicidal behavior, particularly among kids grappling with their sexual identity. A 2015 report showed victims of bullying are 5.8 times more likely to seriously consider suicide. Nationally, 34 percent of LGBTQ students reported being bullied, while 42 percent said they had contemplated suicide.
In the case of Lily McClish, portrayed in a recent Deseret News article, three boys are suspected of participating in harassment conducted in person, by text message and via social media. Court records in Grand County indicate that authorities are investigating whether manslaughter charges might be brought against the three. An affidavit attached to a search warrant states that because of “the severe emotional distress suffered by Lily at the hands of the three individuals, she committed suicide.”
There are a handful of examples of cases in other states involving manslaughter charges brought against people accused of tormenting someone who then committed suicide. Should Grand County bring such charges, it will be up to a judge or jury to decide whether the bullying indeed led to her death. Lily’s mother, Holly McClish, says regardless of what actions police and prosecutors take, schools and the communities they serve need to be more cognizant of the nuances of bullying and more vigilant in monitoring and preventing such behavior. One approach that’s been embraced in more than 40 countries and which is gaining traction in the U.S. is known as “restorative justice,” which emphasizes community-wide efforts to repair the harm caused by bullying and similar behavior, beyond focusing on the wrongdoing itself in the context of a criminal investigation.
One organization, the Centre for Justice & Reconciliation, is at the forefront of promoting techniques that will bring all parties together to discuss the harmful aspects of bullying and look to ways to offer assistance to victims and to reform the behavior of perpetrators, with the participation of schools, parents and law enforcement. Parts of California have practiced these techniques for several years with the rest of the country starting to take up the concept. The approach fits nicely with efforts in Utah to raise awareness of bullying and to require schools to have specific anti-bullying policies in place by 2018.
There are indeed laudable anti-bullying efforts under way in Utah, as well as separate endeavors to offer methods of intervention in cases where there is a risk of suicide. The case of Lily McClish demonstrates in heartrending detail the ongoing need for both awareness and the ability to take action before a young person ends his or her life.