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No Way Out 

When a child reports abuse at school, then kills herself, what is the school's responsibility? The parents of Kerby Casey Guerra want to know.

Less than a year before she died at age 13, Kerby Casey Guerra still played make-believe games with her girlfriends in the back yard of her suburban Rockrimmon home.

The girls pretended they were characters from Sailor Moon, a television cartoon. They enacted scenes from the children's "little people" classic, The Borrowers. They played knight in shining armor.

In July of 1998, Kerby wrote in her journal: "My name is Lionheart. Not Kerby, Casey, Froggy, Dummy or Idiot, just Lionheart. ... My friends chose the name for me because they say that my quietness holds a secret strength in me. I'm glad that they think that of me. I already promised myself to live up to the name Lionheart. But I can't help but wonder what the quiet strength is. My friends know what it is but they say I have to find out for myself."

Hard as she tried, Kerby didn't live long enough to find out.

Last September, she returned to Academy School District 20's Eagleview Middle School for her last year, eighth grade. But aside from the pleasures of music, literature and learning, school for her meant being taunted, teased, called names, sometimes kicked, pushed and knocked down. In her diaries and to friends she complained about suffering at the hands of a group of Eagleview students she called the "populars." Many of her friends were targets as well. A stickler for justice, Kerby stood up for others when they were pushed aside, threatened, called "fatty," "loser" or "four-eyes." She said she told the principal and her counselor, but nothing was different in this, her last year, than in years past -- she said her tormentors continued to operate with little or no consequence.

Since the Littleton shootings in April of last year, there has been growing realization of the damaging effects of habitual abusive behavior by kids toward kids. Many professionals and parents complain that such behavior frequently goes unchecked in our public schools, and it is often unclear what the school's responsibility is in such matters.

Like many adolescents who are harassed by classmates, Kerby kept it from her parents.

Kerby Casey Guerra killed herself with a deer rifle on March 19, 1999. In the months that ensued, after reviewing all they finally knew about their daughter's treatment at Eagleview, her parents, Larry and Donna Guerra, wrote Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, the governor of Colorado and even the president of the United States.

In the letter, Larry Guerra said: "Numerous attempts were made by my daughter, her friends, her friends' parents, as well as ourselves, to the school principal and the school administrator to see what could be done to protect my daughter and the other students from these cruel acts of harassment by these students. Nothing was done, and the harassment continued until she could no longer tolerate it. She was pushed into lockers, kicked, cussed at, called 'nigger lover' since she had several African-American friends. They also threatened to break her legs. She was in such fear that she hid in the bathrooms during some of the classes that these kids were in, just to avoid them."

Guerra's letter ended up in the hands of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who referred it to the department's Denver Office for Civil Rights, ordering that the matter be investigated under the non-discrimination provision of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At this time, the investigation of Eagleview Middle School and Academy School District 20 is still ongoing. But Larry and Donna Guerra are not satisfied. Like thousands of worried parents who have witnessed bloodshed in the halls of America's schools on television or firsthand in the past few years, the Guerras wonder if harassment by peers in the late 1990s doesn't come in a more virulent and relentless form than in the years when they were kids. They believe it is essential for teachers, counselors and school administrators to take back control of the halls of their schools from bullies who usually don't realize the extent of the damage they are inflicting -- sometimes irreparably.

They don't want another hurting child like their daughter to come to believe there is no way out.


Welcome to Eagleview

Eagleview Middle School sits amidst rolling, sand-colored foothills in northwest Colorado Springs, across from a relatively affluent subdivision of large new homes. Built in 1986, it quickly became Academy District 20's banner school, well-equipped, spacious, staffed by the finest teachers. Real estate agents helping business executives and professionals relocate to the Springs often direct their clients to the area because of the excellent reputation of the schools.

The waiting area outside the principal's office, just inside the front door of the school, is quiet and attractive, decorated in soft shades of mauve, tan and peach. Secretary Diane McDowell speaks sweetly into the phone, directing calls for people she refers to as "sweet pea" and "girly girl." On her desk, a sign reads: "Ring bell for my attention -- I'm very delicate and sensitive."

But when she realizes a reporter has come to the school to talk about the Guerra case, McDowell's persona quickly alters. She says all inquiries are to be directed to district headquarters, and she doesn't believe Principal Ross MacAskill will be able to talk. When it is pointed out to her that only general questions about the school will be addressed, and that, after all, the investigation has already been partially reported in the local daily newspaper, she bristles.

"You mean the damage has been done already," she replies, no longer smiling.

When he appears, MacAskill is a fit, attractive man, dressed in a bold tie and khakis. Regarding unruly behavior in the hallways of Eagleview, and the possibility of children hurting other children, he is straightforward. "Whenever it is brought to my attention," he said, "I always deal with it in a systematic and hierarchical manner. I talk to the student, and that usually takes care of it. If it occurs again, I would use the standard disciplinary tools of detention, suspension and expulsion."

Reports of students being knocked down in the halls are "atypical," according to MacAskill. "I would say that could happen but it is not a consistent behavior."

The principal denies any knowledge of kids making other kids steal locker keys from teachers to break into lockers, a behavior referred to by former Eagleview students interviewed for this story. "It has not been brought to my attention," he said.

MacAskill categorizes as "absolutely not true," reports that Eagleview has a very rigid clique system in place and that, if you are not a member, you are ostracized.

"Do you remember being 14?" MacAskill asks. "What do you think was the most important thing to you? I think it was belonging. Belonging to a youth group, to a sport, to a loving family; just belonging somewhere."

According to the Guerras, MacAskill and other district administrators deny they could have done anything to stop Casey's suicide, but MacAskill is not allowed at this time to respond to questions specifically about Casey Guerra or her situation at the school.

A stroll through the halls of Eagleview on this September day reveals no signs of horseplay short of a few dented locker fronts. The carpeted halls are remarkably silent. Classrooms full of kids looking typically bored are flanked by showcase windows framing golden views of the foothills. The few kids who pass through the halls look like early adolescents everywhere: boys with bad haircuts, baggy clothes and ill-fitting, gangly bodies, and girls who would easily pass for 16. The student population appears to be overwhelmingly white and notably blond, not extraordinary for Colorado Springs, especially in the northern suburbs. Thirteen Native American, 23 Asian, 33 African-American and 36 Hispanic students are currently enrolled in Eagleview, which has a total enrollment of 1,072.

"I can't imagine a better place to be a kid," MacAskill said when asked what he wants people to know about Eagleview. "I know there's no better place to be a teacher, by any measure imaginable.''


Hell in the hallways

Not so if you're learning disabled, a racial minority, a nerd or an outsider of any sort, say students interviewed for this story.

Ann*, a former Eagleview student and friend of Kerby's who now lives out of state, said the school was not a welcoming place for kids who didn't fit into the popular mold. "We were both not really popular. [Kerby] was considered a nerd, I was considered an airhead," she said, indicating that students generally fell into one of these two categories, or were classified as "dumb blondes" or "populars."

"They kicked us, they threw spitballs, they put gum in our hair."

Ann reports being kicked by a boy in steel-toed boots so hard she required x-rays, couldn't walk and needed crutches for two days. Then, she says, they kicked her crutches.

"I often would come home from school with bruises on my arm from where I was punched and pinched," she said. "I've had people who threatened to kill me if I didn't do what they told me to do."

Ann, who already had difficulty in school due to attention deficit disorder, says she started lying to her parents, telling them she was sick when she didn't want to go to school. Her mother says she missed 63 days of school her last year at Eagleview, in seventh grade.

One day, Ann put pictures on the inside of her locker door of someone she thought "was really cute." When she came out of class and opened it, she found a message from her tormentors.

"They had broken in and wrote "a-hole' across it," she said, crying softly into the telephone. "They wrote, "'Get the hell out of our school. We don't want you here.' "

In October of 1997, Ann and her friend Kerby Guerra made a suicide pact but didn't follow through. "We talked suicide," she said. "We were being so violently mistreated. I told the principal, the bus driver, the counselor [about the abuse], but nobody did anything."

In her diary, dated July 20, 1998, Kerby Guerra wrote: "School will start pretty soon. August 20, 1998 to be exact ... The most embarrassing thing about school is that I can't commucate (sic) with people. That's also the hardest thing for me. I am also going to have to put up with a lot of creeps really really soon. Joe* and a lot more."

Jeanie*, a graduate of Eagleview now in her first year of high school in Colorado Springs, finds none of the Guerra's accusations shocking or surprising. Also diagnosed with ADD, she attended Eagleview in sixth and seventh grades, until she started having stomach problems and avoiding going to school. In eighth grade, she transferred to another Academy District 20 middle school, where, she says, things were not much better. The weekend Kerby Guerra killed herself, Jeanie also attempted suicide, though she wasn't aware of Kerby's actions. She is now undergoing intensive therapy.

"Oh yeah," said Jeanie, "I was harassed constantly. I got hit." Jeanie says she complained to MacAskill about the harassment, and even got her counselor, Patty Kramer, at one point, to round up the perpetrators and take them all to the principal's office. She says the principal looked over the group and dismissed all of them but one, the one he had concrete evidence on. She doesn't know what punishment he received.

Jeanie says she witnessed Kerby Guerra's abuse in the halls. "They called her nigger lover. And she was half Hispanic, so they'd get on her about that." When asked how often this kind of abuse occurred, Jessica didn't hesitate. "On a daily basis," she said.

"It's like a freaking pecking order [at Eagleview]," she said. "If you don't wear this kind of clothes; if you don't decorate your locker like this; if you don't have the right boyfriend, you can't be in their group. They're just sheep."

A frequent comment hurled at Kerby Guerra, meant to be a slur, according to her friends, was "you buy your clothes at K-Mart."

"I think a lot of kids think, 'I have to fit into something -- I'm too scared to be on my own,' so they join them. It's such a popularity contest all the time. There's just enough of [the populars] to make it bad for you if you stand up to them."

Jeanie's voice turns hard and sarcastic when she talks about the popular kids at Eagleview. But her pain is evident when she describes a particularly biting rejection. "They called me loser, slut, whore, flipped me off. They'd walk by and make sexual comments to me, which I hated. You'd walk up to them, and they'd say, like, 'God, why are you over here?' and I'd think, oh well, there goes my day.

"I just totally want to hurt them, but I don't. I know that's wrong, but I really want to."

Jan*, a straight-A student who is Korean-American, says she was not aware of Kerby being abused at school and was not treated badly herself by the students at Eagleview. When she and Kerby volunteered together at the public library, says Jan, Kerby complained about fighting with her father. Jan's major complaint about Eagleview was that everyone knew who the principal's favorites were, and everyone assumed those kids would never be punished regardless of their behavior. Of the nine perpetrators consistently listed by Kerby and others, six were affirmed by Jan to be known favorites of principal MacAskill.

Both Ann and Jeanie remember Kerby Guerra as someone who stood up to the bullies, for herself and for them. And a District 20 parent whose son with obsessive-compulsive disorder attended Eagleview, says Kerby was the only person there who tried to understand him.

"She was like a fragile flower in a harsh rain," the mother said. "What [Kerby] wanted was a support group for kids like her and my son to come to."


It didn't go well

Just before she died, shortly after withdrawing from Eagleview Middle School because her suicidal feelings had become so acute, Kerby Guerra asked for a meeting to talk about putting that support group in place.

Guerra had been admitted twice by now for inpatient treatment at the Cleo Wallace Center, a mental health treatment center for adolescents. In January of 1999, following a suicide attempt using prescription medication found in the house, Kerby was admitted to Cleo Wallace where she finally told her parents everything. The Guerras had come across a suicide note in her bedroom, and read these words of Kerby's: "I know my death will shock you, but I had to do it. All my life I've been teased, harassed and pushed around. I just couldn't stand it anymore."

"She was so strong in her ways of dealing with the harassment," said Donna, "We did not realize that she was truly being torn apart on the inside."

When Donna called the principal and asked him why they had not been contacted and informed about the harassment from the beginning, she claims MacAskill told her: "Your daughter is too sensitive, and she complains too much. She needs to get a backbone."

Kerby came home, was started on the anti-depressant Paxil, entered therapy and went back to Eagleview to a new team of teachers. Things appeared to be going fine until March 10, when her sister Stacy, age 28, received a telephone call from Eagleview, asking her to pick up Kerby from school. Kerby told Stacy the same students had threatened to break her legs and told her she would never walk again. She said she had told the principal, who, reportedly, once again told her to buck up, to stop feeling sorry for herself. A teacher advised her to go to the office and say she was sick so she could go home.

Soon after, Kerby was admitted again to Cleo Wallace. Her discharge summary states: "[Kerby] stated that she has been cutting on herself with scissors at school because of harassment by a group of peers. ... Reportedly, she is getting no support from the principal in disciplining these peers. ... Patient is at risk for self-harm and suicidal behavior. ... In family session, made plan to remove patient from source of harassment (school). Parents planned to look into home schooling or private school. The behavior [parents] have seen in the last two months is a 'totally different person' than previously. ... Kerby stated that her family is very supportive and loving. She stated she can doubt they love her when this group of peers taunt her that her family does not love her."

On March 15, Kerby was released from Cleo Wallace, and on March 18, a meeting was scheduled at Eagleview with Principal MacAskill and Academy School District Deputy Superintendent Mary Thurman. Also present were two of Kerby's girlfriends, African-Americans who had witnessed the abusive behavior in the halls; the mother of one of the girls; Kerby's sister Stacy; her parents Donna and Larry; and a police officer who had accompanied Kerby to the hospital on one occasion and had expressed concern about the reported harassment.

"The meeting did not go well," said Donna. Kerby's intention was to press charges against the main aggressors, and to ask that a support group be set up for kids who felt "different." "Mr. MacAskill lied and said he never told Kerby to get a backbone, and that Kerby had never gone to him to ask for help," said Guerra. "Kerby said, 'Why are you lying? I even took you to the lunchroom to point out all the students who were harassing me.'"

According to Donna, when Kerby's friends tried to speak, to tell Mary Thurman what they had witnessed, they were interrupted by the principal. The mother of Kerby's friend stated that she had gone to MacAskill before to inform him of harassment her daughter was receiving, and she was told there wasn't a racial harassment policy at D-20. MacAskill told the parents that each school was responsible for handling their own racial and harassment problems, Guerra said.

"Mr. MacAskill told us in that meeting that he had gone to a few of Kerby's classes and put his hand on her shoulder to see how everything was going," said Guerra. "Kerby looked at him and said, 'You never did that, not once, you never even talked to me in the halls at school.'"

Kerby's sister Stacy says she was accused of lying in the meeting and was shut up when she tried to speak. And just before Kerby raced out of the meeting crying, after questioning MacAskill's statement, her sister says "she looked very scared, like she didn't know where she was going to go, what she was going to do."

The police officer at the meeting reportedly advised against pressing charges against the kids who had dealt the harassment, saying that "it was not advisable to get a restraining order against kids this age."

Larry asked Principal MacAskill if he had ever taken the accused students into his office. According to Stacy, "He said he'd spoken to a few, and they said they wouldn't do it again." Larry filed a formal written complaint against the school before leaving.

Kerby returned to Eagleview just one more time, the same afternoon, to turn in her books and say goodbye to her teachers. Her mother and sister report that during the time they were there, one of the perpetrators pushed Kerby's 4-year-old nephew out of the way and walked off, banging each locker with his fist on his way back to class. Both say one of the kids flipped them off while Kerby was hugging one of the teachers.

During their last conversation with MacAskill, Donna Guerra claims the principal indicated he felt it was a good idea that Kerby was leaving. "I asked him to tell the parents of the children who were harassing Kerby, but he felt it was best not to get them involved, since Kerby wasn't going to be there now anyway," she said. "He asked Kerby what high school she was planning on going to, and she said she wanted to go to Air Academy High. He said that wouldn't be a good idea, since all those students would be going there as well.

"I told him we were looking into private schools, and I asked him if he would give Kerby a good recommendation. He said Kerby was a well-behaved student and that she was never a problem. I turned to him and said, 'It's a shame that she's the one who has to leave.'"


Nowhere to run

The next day, on March 19, Kerby Casey Guerra took her life. Her parents took their daughter Kristy, whose husband was stationed with the Army in Korea, out to celebrate her birthday. Donna had taken Kerby out to have her nails done that day, and she believed her daughter was relieved to no longer be at school. Kerby insisted she was feeling fine, and was left to babysit her niece and nephew.

After putting the kids to bed, drawing pictures for them and writing a brief suicide note, she fished out the hidden key to her brother-in-law's gun cabinet and removed his hunting rifle. The ammunition was in a separate locked cabinet, and she found the key to it as well.

Her parents and sisters all say they called to check in that night up to about 9:30, when Kerby said she was going to watch Mulan and go to sleep. Between then and the time they came home, at about 1 a.m., she put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

"Blood was everywhere," said Donna, who believes that Kerby couldn't possibly have known how brutal the impact would be. "My baby was laying face down. I knew she had no face left."

Kerby's suicide note lay in a pool of blood. It read: "I'm very sorry I lied to you all. I love you all. Kerby." She had put the pictures she left for the children in the other room. They were drawings of animals with wings.

At Eagleview the next week, principal MacAskill issued a schoolwide announcement to the students, expressing sadness and offering condolences to Casey's family. The announcement ended with this message: "Some of you may think you could have prevented this or that you said or did something to make Casey feel badly. Please know that nothing you said or did (or didn't do) caused this. I think if we can keep busy, work hard, talk with our teachers and parents and support each other, we'll get through this together."

The statement was followed up by a letter mailed to parents, urging them to watch for signs of depression in their children, and offering counseling when school resumed after spring break. "We will do our best to continue to keep the environment at Eagleview safe and supportive for our children," the letter said. "God bless you, Casey. God bless you all."

Following spring break, a counselor from Pikes Peak Mental Health came to Eagleview to meet with students. The parents of two of Kerby's friends subsequently requested a meeting with MacAskill because their daughters complained that the session seemed to have been designed for the benefit of the "populars," to absolve everyone of any responsibility. MacAskill said that was not his intention. According to minutes from that meeting, Kerby's friends felt "they were never given an opportunity to fully express their opinion of the role the other group of students may have played in her decision. While this may have helped the other group deal with their guilt, the students that really needed help were ignored." The two groups were segregated into separate meetings, then came together in a joint meeting where, according to one of Kerby's friends, "the other students denied making any comments or being behind any activity that might have depressed Kerby. They felt that Kerby should have been stronger and not taken their comments personally." Kerby's other friend said it appeared the joint session was requested by those students who wanted to express their grief to Kerby's friends. "For their sake," she said, "I hope it was genuine."

In May, the Guerras received a letter from District 20 Superintendent Donald Fielder, in response to a forwarded letter he had received from Mayor Makepeace. "I have reviewed this matter, and you should be confident that school district employees took appropriate action to protect the safety and security of Kerby. The school district has procedures in place to address harassing and discriminatory conduct. Each allegation is carefully investigated, and action is taken when improper behavior is substantiated."

One week later, a statement was issued from District 20, stating that administrators had reviewed the matter and the Guerras should be assured that "the safety and security of Kerby was always of paramount concern." (That statement was D-20's official and only response to repeated calls from the Independent during the course of reporting for this story.)

The Guerras strongly disagree with the district's claim that Kerby was adequately protected.

Reading through their daughter's journal, following her first suicide attempt, they came across an entry made in Casey's second semester of seventh grade, more than a year before her death, stating she had visited her counselor and told her that she was thinking of suicide a lot. The Guerras say they were not informed. They further contend that when they asked the Eagleview counselor about that visit, she said she needed to check her notes. The Guerras requested that the counselor follow up on that meeting, and they say she didn't call them back.

In a memo from Steve Morrison, then District spokesman, to the Independent, he stated: "There is no policy on counselors that governs their interactions with students, and the guidelines for parent contact have been dropped." District guidelines now in place, taken from statements of ethics from national counselor organizations, do, however, suggest the following: "The privacy rights of students must be respected. However, counselors shall inform parents of information that might jeopardize the health, safety and welfare of the student even if the student objects to the disclosure."

In an e-mail message, Principal MacAskill told the Independent: "We ALWAYS notify parents when there is a suspicion or report of potential of suicide. This case is no exception. We always tell parents -- it's not necessarily a written policy; it is the right thing to do."

Regarding unruly behavior by students in the halls, district guidlines require school accountability committees to submit a report that includes specific information on all conduct and disciplinary actions taken during the year. Eagleview's annual School Improvement/Accountability Report for 1997 - 98 does not address the issue of unruly student behavior in any way, focusing instead largely on student academic performance and "learning environment."

Donna and Larry Guerra say they know their daughter was troubled and fragile, and was a high suicide risk. They constantly agonize over what they might have done to help prevent her death. But they cannot ignore their belief that Kerby's treatment by students at Eagleview and the reported lack of response by the administration exacerbated her condition, eroded her trust and ultimately helped lead her to what she believed was her only choice.

"She turned her pain and grief on herself, because she was a caring person and did not want to hurt others," said Larry in his letter to the mayor.

Kerby's sister Stacy put it this way: "Kids take measures in their own hands, one way or another."

Whether or not accountability by the school and a stronger response to the harassment charges would have made a difference is something no one can know. Donna and Larry Guerra say they are not accusing anyone of killing their daughter.

But they won't stop talking about her treatment by her fellow students in the halls at Eagleview Middle School until the principal and staff there, and Academy School District 20 officials, admit they failed Kerby, and promise to institute changes to help ensure what happened to her doesn't happen to another child.

As for Casey, in a poem she wrote, she left behind this message:

I am an auburn haired girl...
I feel what others feel ...
I worry about friends and
family ...

I am my own person ...
I say try and try ...
I try my hardest ...
I hope for peace between
people ...

I am a dreamer.

* The names of all accused perpetrators have been withheld from this story, and all students interviewed have been given pseudonyms at their request.

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