February 26, 2013

Mother of bullying victim strikes back with efforts to save others

On his 17th birthday – Sept. 15, 2008 – Michael Joseph Berry of Carmichael was granted permission from his third-period teacher to excuse himself from class. He would not return.

On his 17th birthday – Sept. 15, 2008 – Michael Joseph Berry of Carmichael was granted permission from his third-period teacher to excuse himself from class. He would not return.

The Mira Loma High School junior walked down familiar hallways for the last time, entered a boys' restroom and shot himself in the head with a gun he had taken from an uncle's house. The following day, he died in a hospital in the arms of his sobbing mother.

Soon afterward, in piecing together the excruciating puzzle of why a bright, outgoing young man would end his life so horrifically, his parents made discoveries that compounded their agony.

They found out their son was the victim of cyber- bullying, and apparently could no longer bear the constant torment. The terrifying truth was revealed when his parents read a 2 1/2-page, handwritten letter and four notes, along with his MySpace correspondence, text messages and voicemails.

Over the summer break, a classmate with a history of disciplinary issues at school had somehow come to believe that Michael was a virgin. True or not, in the bully's twisted logic, that must have meant Michael was gay. So began a months- long hate campaign against him, which spread digitally and by word of mouth.

By the time school was back in session, the sickening groundwork had been laid.

The barrage of cyber harassment was occurring 24/7, and real-time humiliation was constant at school (the ringleader of the bullying was in Michael's fourth-period class). Yet Michael never informed his parents, his brother or his pastor. None of his friends stepped up to tell any adult; instead, they caved in to peer pressure and turned against him.

Michael sought help from school counselors and other staff members, but "they did nothing," said his mother, Lisa Ford-Berry.

"Our boy fell through the cracks and broke under the pain," she said.

Two years after attending her son's funeral service, Ford-Berry had recovered enough to make a choice between filing lawsuits against Mira Loma High School and the San Juan Unified School District, or taking a different direction that would have more positive and profound ramifications.

Her decision resulted in the group B.R.A.V.E. – the Bullies Really Are Violating Everyone Society – and her new book, "Be B.R.A.V.E.," an offshoot of the nonprofit organization.

Through B.R.A.V.E. and the book, she has dedicated herself to helping the parents of peer-abuse victims navigate the legal mazes and jump through the bureaucratic hoops required to take action against bullies and the schools that allow it.

"Michael's legacy is awareness," Ford-Berry said. "My mission is accountability."

"Be B.R.A.V.E." is a step-by-step guide to handling and resolving incidents of bullying.

"People want the sequential 'How do I do this?' So I take the information that's out there, drill down and make it accessible," she explained.

As part of the B.R.A.V.E. program, Ford-Berry regularly speaks to groups in the area and beyond.

"We reach out to parents, educators, politicians, students, law enforcement, the legal system, churches and whole communities to say, 'What do you see?' " she said on the phone recently. "The only way things are going to get better is if everybody has a seat at the table and is willing to talk about bullying."

Ford-Berry is doggedly proactive on other fronts as well, including with state legislative efforts. She is organizing B.R.A.V.E.'s second bullying-awareness conference in October.

"Be B.R.A.V.E." begins with Ford-Berry's wrenching account of her son's tragic story, in which she charges negligence against Mira Loma High School and the San Juan Unified School District.

Since the case remains a "student discipline and privacy issue," the school and the district cannot discuss it, said district spokesman Trent Allen. "Certainly it was a tragedy, and we have tried to make sure we have learned everything we possibly can from it, to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Was any disciplinary action taken against the student who led the bullying crusade that resulted in Michael's "bullycide"?

"Any time we have a (bullying) question raised, we have an interest in investigating it fully," Allen said. "In this incident, (protocol) was followed. I can't share any outcomes of that, because it goes directly to student privacy."

"Not a thing happened (to the bully)," Ford-Berry said. "We took all the information to the (Mira Loma principal at the time), and her final response to us was (something like), 'Nothing will bring Michael back, so what do you hope to accomplish by dragging in another student?' Our son had been dead for less than two weeks, and I thought, 'My God, no one cares why he broke, and in such a public fashion.' "

In retrospect, what would Ford-Berry have done differently?

"We never checked Michael's text messages or said, 'Let us see who you're contacting,' " she said. "We knew nothing about cyberbullying, so it never occurred to us.

"If I could go back, Michael would have no privacy on his cellphone," she said. "We bought it for him to give us peace of mind. I never thought someone would be able to reach into the security of our home and turn Michael's phone into a deadly weapon."

Lisa Ford-Berry

Who: She is the founder of the B.R.A.V.E. Society, which assists the parents and victims of peer abuse through anti-bullying education and resources.

What: She will give a presentation about her book, "Be B.R.A.V.E." (Heartfelt, $14.95, 194 pages), and answer questions

When: 7 tonight

Where: Time Tested Books, 1114 21st St., Sacramento Information: (916) 447-5696, (916) 903-6627,

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