MOREAUVILLE – Chants of “one, two, three, freedom John” went up as a crowd of people released balloons into the air above Avoyelles High School on Monday.
Some 100 balloons with notes attached floated away in memory of Avoyelles sophomore John Michael Jarreau, who died in his home March 13. He reportedly committed suicide because of bullying.
Students and friends organized the balloon launch and candlelight vigil as a way to remember Jarreau while encouraging others to speak up against bullying.
“They (students) want to stomp out this bullying and show respect to John,” junior Lena Lemoine said.
She said many see bullying on movies or in the media and wrongly think it can’t happen where they live.
“It’s just an everyday thing, like everyday high school,” Lemoine said. “This happens every single day. We need to end it. … This is a big wake-up call for Avoyelles High, for every high school.”
In fact, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that about 20 percent of high school students were bullied at school in 2011, the most recent year for which figures were available. The figure was 19 percent in Louisiana that year, up from almost 16 percent in 2009.
The CDC also reported high numbers for youth suicide — the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24. It results in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year in the U.S. A nationwide survey of high school students found that 16 percent reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan and 8 percent reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey.
Fellow sophomore Kristen Dupont said Jarreau was picked on for his outspoken faith, adding that he wanted to be a preacher and often quoted the Bible. A shy and “unique” guy, she said, John was an easy target for bullies.
“I just wish he would’ve came to somebody,” she said.
Dupont said the event Monday also was a way for everyone to cope with the loss.
“We wanted to do something for him because of all the grief we feel,” she said.
The memorial event fell on the same week as the National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence, which is set for Friday. The day began in Australia to provide a focus for all schools to strengthen existing messages that bullying and violence at school are not OK at any time, according to the campaign’s website.
An Avoyelles Parish couple is using Jarreau’s story as inspiration for an effort to stop bullying. Terry Bonnette and his fiancée, Kelsey Gaspard, created Bully Busters, a community-based, anti-bullying club for adults, as well as kids, at local schools.
“It’s to provide safe refuge for those being bullied,” Bonnette said.
He said members will wear lanyards of neon yellow — the color of friendship and bright for awareness — to school, so those being bullied will know whom they can turn to for help.
“You know you can walk away from that situation and be amongst friends,” he said. “We want to surround the sheep and keep the wolves away.”
They also plan to provide a 24-hour, free hotline, suggestion boxes in schools and other support to stop bullying and prevent suicides.
Jenna Dowden, a sophomore and Jarreau’s cousin, said Jarreau’s family is supportive of using his story as inspiration for an anti-bullying campaign.
“They don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said.
Otis Jacobs, a sophomore and Jarreau’s best friend, was one of the last to address the crowd before launching the balloons. He urged everyone to look for signs of bullying, depression or suicidal tendencies.
“He was one of the best friends I had,” Jacobs said. “It doesn’t have to happen again. … All I want y’all to do is start listening. … Had I seen the signs, John would still be here.”