Solving bullying problem should be community effort

The Democrat has been covering the events of the past week with a heavy heart as our staff does its best to provide the best coverage to our readers. When a city like Sedalia loses a member, especially a young person, in a tragic way, it affects the whole community. Thursday’s protest at Smith-Cotton High School is such an example.

We had high hopes to cover an event honoring the life of 16-year-old Riley Garrigus — and those students who died earlier this year — with respect and dignity that also opened community discussions on a tough and important topic.

That wasn’t what we ended up covering.

What our staff witnessed was not what we believe represents Sedalia. The Sedalia that bands together year after year to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Sedalia-Pettis County United Way. The Sedalia that provided food, water and emotional support to both those who lost their homes and the firefighters battling the blaze on Thanksgiving Day 2015. The Sedalia that turns out in force at Smith-Cotton Tiger football games because we all know the Silver Tiger trophy belongs at its true home on Tiger Pride Boulevard.

What we saw was people using bullying to fight bullying, spewing curse words at school administrators and yelling over each other so the message of hope and community was drowned out by the same hurtful words that group was supposed to be rallying against.

We understand those close to Riley are feeling anger, heartache and pain and that they were expressing those emotions Thursday. Some of us at the Democrat can relate personally to losing someone to suicide. But when your cause is anti-bullying yet you scream and yell at others, calling them a “coward,” those children present were watching your example. You told them it’s OK to be a bully if the time and place warrants it.

We fully acknowledge there is a bullying, and suicide, problem in Sedalia. If there wasn’t a problem, Sedalia School District 200 officials wouldn’t be working over the last several months to implement new programs, and parents wouldn’t feel the need to march on the school right before breaking for the Easter holiday. Three teen suicides in 16 months is three too many.

Some yelled in disagreement when Superintendent Brad Pollitt called this a “community issue,” but we have to say we agree with him. Yes, three teen suicides is too many, but we can’t forget about those we’ve lost who no longer attended Smith-Cotton. According to Pettis County Coroner Robert “Skip” Smith, nine people ranging from young to elderly died by suicide in 2016 in Pettis County. Three more suicides have already happened in 2017. Don’t we owe it them to find a community-wide solution?

We thank S-C student Destiny Thornton for her bravery and leadership during this tough time for our community. Her words during Thursday’s rally showed some of the students understood the true meaning of what that event was supposed to be.

Helping Smith-Cotton students should be the focus of everyone’s efforts — as a community our goal should be lifting up all students, not vilifying one or two people. We are excited to see what Destiny and her peers are able to do for Sedalia and Smith-Cotton.

The Democrat staff can tell you this: we will be here every step of the way. We will continue to cover every school board meeting. We will follow the Signs of Suicide training and Link Crew and other programs as they are implemented, and even after. We plan to talk with the new community coalition and mental health professionals. This issue will not be ignored.

We are part of this community and are incredibly proud to have “Sedalia” in our name.

Solving this problem of bullying and loneliness, suicide and mental health will not be solved solely by the Democrat. It will not be solved solely by Sedalia 200. It can, and hopefully will, be solved by the Sedalia community.

Tell a stranger “hello” this morning. Hold the door open for someone. Say “thank you.” Compliment a friend. Avoid passing judgment on anyone. Hug your loved ones.

We’re pledging to do our part. Are you?
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