Focus: Bullied to death
Kelly Yeomans was 13 when she committed suicide, the victim of relentless harassment. Her case shocked the world, but five months on her parents are no closer to understanding why she couldn't be protected
"When Kelly was here, it was a laugh a minute; she'd got a right cheeky laugh," says Ivan. The living room of the Yeomans' modest semi-detached council home is full of photographs of Kelly; Kelly as a baby, Kelly in school portraits, Kelly with the rest of the family. But today, as they do every Sunday, Ivan and Julie Yeomans will be making a sad pilgrimage to their daughter's grave.
Kelly Yeomans was 13 when she died. Shy and plump, she had been a victim of prolonged bullying at school. Her classmates stabbed her with pencils, threw her schoolbag in the bin, poured salt over her lunch, beat her up and broke her glasses. Such cruelty was not confined to the playground: a number of local teenagers subjected Kelly, her parents and her older sister Sarah to three years of escalating harassment in their home. Over the four days immediately prior to Kelly's death, they hurled stones and eggs at the house each evening, shouting abuse. When Kelly ventured outside, they threatened her. It all became too much for her to bear; she swallowed a fatal overdose of painkillers and was found dead in bed on the morning of 29 September last year.
Bullying is extremely difficult to tackle. Children are often reluctant to seek help through fear of making the situation worse, or of being seen by their peers as a coward or a tell-tale. Parents and teachers tend to underestimate the seriousness of the problem, yet several children each year commit suicide over bullying. The case of Kelly Yeomans was so ugly that it received international attention and ended in legal action. Five local teenagers were taken to court pleaded guilty to the charge of intentional harassment. Four of them are now facing possible custodial sentences; the magistrates at Derbyshire youth court are still deliberating. In the meantime, Kelly's father Ivan has contemplated suicide himself and is receiving counselling and Prozac; her mother Julie cannot sleep at night. Julie Yeomans' mother died last Thursday; Kelly and her grandmother were very close, and Julie can't help thinking that the shock and stress of the past five months contributed to her mother's sudden death.
KELLY'S tiny bedroom is still full of her toys and festooned with posters of Boyzone, her favourite group. "At ten to four I still think she'll walk through the door," says Julie dully. "I get upset when it's only Sarah that comes in. I can't really believe she's gone."
Why Kelly? "If you're different you get picked on," says Ivan. "Kelly was a loner, she was poor, she kept herself to herself." And, though he didn't say it, she was overweight, she wore glasses, she was no good at sport - all sufficient in themselves to cause teasing of some kind, and, in combination, almost a guarantee of it. "They said to the police they did it for fun," says Ivan bleakly.
The Yeomans have put together a scrapbook. Along with dozens of cuttings about Kelly's death from all round the world, they have glued in records of her achievements, which they are eager to show. Along with certificates of merit for "enthusiastic singing" and "excellent written work" from her primary school is one that shows the way things were going even then: a commendation for "being very mature about handling difficult situations in class".
The "difficult situations in class" escalated when Kelly went to secondary school to the point where she was terrified to walk home alongside her classmates; she would make any excuse to hang back, or go home via her aunt's house to avoid the other children. She said little at home about her ordeals; her parents would find out what had been going on when she came home without her glasses or her trainers (broken or binned), but outwardly she remained stoical. "She didn't cry," recalls her father. "She was always drawn back into herself."
In an attempt to get help, the Yeomans tackled Kelly's teachers. Julie Yeomans visited the school on numerous occasions; she even sent a solicitor's letter demanding action (after Kelly's death the school denied that any letter had been sent; it eventually turned up, misfiled in Sarah's school records). "They didn't do anything," she says. "They always said 'We'll sort it out, we'll sort it out' but they never did."
"The teachers would just say 'Sit down Kelly, don't be a tittle-tattle'," chimes in Sarah.
Kelly was a keen member of the Salvation Army, and Julie decided that Kelly should be buried in her Army uniform rather than her school clothes. "She wasn't happy in her school uniform. She was much happier in the Army, where they accept everyone."
Teachers don't bear full responsibility for the behaviour of the children in their classes, but Ivan Yeomans finds it hard to blame the parents of his daughters' tormenters. "Their parents can't look after them 24 hours a day. These were older lads, they should know right from wrong." But he is bewildered none the less. "I was brought up to be respectful, not to give back-chat, to respect people and their property. It shocks me the way the world is turning out."
Julie attempted to approach one boy's parents and was given short shrift. "I tried to tell the father and he told me to get off their premises, and shut the door in my face. And if you tried to speak to the kids themselves they would just tell you to f--- off. Some nights I was afraid to go out but one night I did and said 'Why are you doing this?' and they just gave me a mouthful."
Ivan is 46, Julie is 42. They have been married nearly 20 years and have both lived in the neighbourhood all their lives. Both attended local schools. "There was nothing like this bullying when we were at school round here," says Ivan. "The neighbourhood has changed a lot. Now the kids have got nothing to do but hang around on street corners and go about in gangs." The Yeomans are determined to stay in their home, where they have lived for the past 13 years. "No way am I leaving," says Julie. "There are too many memories in this house, and if we move, they're gone." And, indeed, since Kelly's suicide they have been left strictly alone: the street is quieter at night than it has been for years.
LAST YEAR, bullying was the most frequent reason for calls to ChildLine; more than 14,000 children rang for help. A ChildLine survey showed that, of a sample of 1,500 children who had complained of bullying, 62 said they had felt so miserable that they wanted to die. ChildLine's initial advice is to confide in a sympathetic adult. However, the charity also reports that 97 per cent of children who said they had told an adult about the problem found that it continued anyway."Children are recognising that it's OK to tell adults about bullying, but that telling doesn't automatically mean the bullying stops," explains a spokeswoman. Because of this, ChildLine's new campaign, ChildLine in Partnership With Schools (CHIPS) is shifting its emphasis; it aims to promote a child- rather than adult-centred approach. Teachers are being trained, and in turn will train their pupils, in techniques of "peer support"; the idea is to encourage and help children to help each other.
It is too late for Kelly Yeomans. Even after her death, she was not left alone. Her coffin in the chapel of rest was filled with teddy bears and posters, and in her hand was a pack of her favourite sweets. The body was disturbed and the sweets were stolen by one visitor, who, says Ivan, was caught on closed-circuit television. Neighbours have set up a fund in Kelly's memory, to pay for her headstone and make donations to ChildLine and a holiday centre for underprivileged children; but the police have found unscrupulous "collectors" claiming to be relatives of Kelly's and keeping the cash for themselves. "It shows you how evil people are," says Ivan Yeomans, more in sorrow than in anger. "What are their own children going to turn out like?"
What can schools do?
The children's charity ChildLine launched a campaign earlier this month to combat the problem of bullying. The charity warns that no school should assume it is exempt: "Do not simply wait for it to happen; assume that bullying does take place and act to prevent it." It suggests the following guidelines:
l Role-playing in groups of pupils can help victims devise ways of coping and help bullies see things from the victim's point of view
l Victims need to be convinced of their own worth; bullying can have disastrous effects on confidence. Activities to help raise self-esteem and improve social skills, supported by parents and teachers, can help counter feelings of inferiority
l Bullies need to be taught that they can satisfy their needs by working with others rather than through conflict or competition. Bullies' parents will need to discuss how their behaviour can be changed
l Both teachers and pupils should find ways of rewarding non-aggressive behaviour
l Tackling "everyday" instances of racist or sexist language or behaviour rather than letting them pass helps everyone see that they are not acceptable
l Bullies may need help to change their ways. Some children can be persuaded through peer-group pressure and encouragement. Others may require interventions by social workers, educational psychologists or even the police
ChildLine can be contacted on 0800 1111
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